Hours after the fight, Soe Linn Oo is still bleeding from his scalp and left
eyebrow. His teammate dabs his wounds with egg yolk to stem the blood flow and
plasters on some egg shell for good measure, a traditional remedy that seems to
work. It is all in a day’s work for the young athlete, already one of Myanmar’s top
traditional Burmese boxing (lethwei
in Burmese) fighters. Whatever the
pain, Soe Linn Oo stays focused on why he fights: growing fame and cash to help his
family out of poverty.
dates to at least the 11th century and was used by Burmese monks
to defend themselves and by warriors to protect the king. It is now a way for young
men from Myanmar’s impoverished countryside to fight their way to a better life. The
Burmese have long prized their traditional sport, but in recent years, a moneyed,
league has emerged in Myanmar. The best fighters can
earn prize money of about ten times the $250 a month that white-collar Burmese make.
During matches, spectators also reward the boxers they like by handing the referee
wads of cash for them.
At a training centre in Yangon (formerly known as Rangoon), national coach Yoe Yoe
Thay drills Soe Linn Oo and 16 other top and aspiring boxers in grueling
twice-daily sessions. Most come from poor farming families far from the city, said
Yoe Yoe Thay, himself a famous boxer in the 1990s.
“Some rich guys come to train with us, but they don’t ever fight matches. They’re
scared of injuries,” he says.
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