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School of hard knocks
Thailand's traditional martial art has been around for centuries, but now young people can enroll in university and study the history, techniques, ethics and other aspects of a sport which may even make it to the Olympic Games in the not too distant future, writes Achara Ashayagachat in Ratchaburi
Thai boxing, or Muay Thai as it is known locally, has been widely accepted around the world and is included in such sporting competitions as the SEA Games and Asian Games.
It has also recently been recognised by the International Olympic Committee, which brings the traditional martial art a step closer to being included in future Olympic Games.
However, amid the popularity of Muay Thai as a martial art and a fad among westerners, thanks to movies such as Ong Bak, there is still a lack of professional and academic standards.
In terms of professional standards, there are some international organisations holding tournaments worldwide, but fledgling efforts to standardise the professional quality are still going on. However, in terms of academic standards, an effort has already started at Chombung Rajabhat University.
Assoc Prof Chanchai Yomdit, the dean of the Muay Thai Study College at the university, has launched a doctorate in the philosophy of Muay Thai, the world's first academic institute to do so.
"Why not? It originated in our country. Why don't we try to establish a centre of wisdom and encourage research and development on our heritage for the next generation," said Mr Chanchai.
The doctoral degree comes five years after the centre offered a master's degree in Muay Thai studies.
Students and former boxers at Chombung Rajabhat University display Pra Ram, or `Trotting the Forest', a Muay Thai tactic. A student shows how to tie the hands and arms with strips of cloth before practising Muay Thai.
Chombung Rajabhat University, formerly a teachers college, has already produced several boxers who were studying there. They included Chalerm Singh Nua Mek, who was a star of Channel 7's boxing programme, and Mr Chanchai, who once boxed as both an amateur and professional when he was a student.
"My colleagues and I love the sport and we think this kind of athletic wisdom is a cultural asset for our country. We need to preserve and develop it. When they [the students] like Muay Thai, we should provide a stage for them to do it properly under our guidance. It's better than letting them get addicted to computer games," he said.
The master's degree was first offered in order to hone the skills and shape the physical and philosophical minds of physical education teachers, who taught Muay Thai.
Two outstanding master's theses, coincidentally under the same adviser, Amnat Poosrisuk, will be presented to Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn during her visit to the university on Thursday.
One was authored by Chao Wathayotha from the Ban Phai secondary school in Khon Kaen on Muay Thai Korat, and another was by Chattuchai Champahom from the Phan Thong secondary school in Chon Buri on Muay Chai Ya.
Mr Chao and Mr Chattuchai were part of the first batch of 27 students who graduated last year. Seven have yet to complete their theses. The 25-member second batch of master's degree students should be finished in the next few years.
The latest attempt to open up bachelor's degrees, said Mr Chanchai, is targeted at giving boxers, both former and present champions, an academic environment which also focuses on ethics, Thai heritage and basic English.
The university also provides a public service for prisons in Ratchaburi, Phetchaburi, Nakhon Pathom and Kanchanaburi.
Chanchai Yomdit, the founder of the Muay Thai Study College, talks about his dream of producing boxers, teachers and researchers for Thailand. — Photos by THITI WANNAMONTHA
"There are increasingly former famous boxers who end up in jail for such crimes as drug trafficking and murder. We need to help save them from falling into those vices. Their skills need to be used in a decent way," he said.
For doctorates, the first 15 students are hoping to form a network of research and accumulate the scattered wisdom and tactics of Muay Thai into a scientific methodology so that a winning strategy can be developed and expanded quantitatively and qualitatively, the college dean said.
Siraphop Ratanasuban, one of the students studying for the doctorate, said Muay Thai in Thailand has yet to gain the same recognition as in the West.
"It will take a long time correcting and building a new image for it as a martial art so middle-class people can send their children to learn this art for, say, self-defence. We therefore need people qualified professionally and academically on Muay Thai. That's why I am here," said Mr Siraphop, who studied finance and marketing in the United States and is also the only son of famous boxing promoter Songchai Ratanasuban.
Veera Gatchapakirin, manager of the Muay Thai Conservation Centre under the supervision of the Tourism and Sports Ministry, said there was always politics in the business, but little effort to fill the gap of Muay Thai wisdom.
"My job is to sponsor educational institutions that help preserve it in various forms with an annual budget of 5.5 million baht. Chombung Rajabhat University is the 17th centre we are supporting and I take the opportunity to get a doctorate there," said Mr Veera.
Sawang Vitayapitaks, an adviser to the programme, said Thailand needed to change the thinking and image of Muay Thai.
"We have to instill love and respect of Muay Thai. First they must know the benefit of studying it for their health, for their personality and for friendship. Muay Thai teaches us to be a decent and humble person with strength in mind.
"We do not have to be a boxer in order to learn Muay Thai," said Mr Sawang, who is also a referee at Ratchadamnoen boxing stadium.