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Khmer Martial Arts:   The Current Situation of Cambodia's Ancient Fighting Arts

Cambodia is a country with a long and proud history of culture and empire, dating back to the Angkor period, which precedes many of the civilizations of southeast Asia. Along with their ancient history of culture, there is a long tradition of martial arts. For thousands of years, right on up to the present, high-ranking military and police officers were expected to be experts in the martial arts and proficient in individual combat.

Cambodia has a number of martial arts, which are only now being discovered and catalogued by westerners. The arts were almost completely eliminated during the Khmer Rouge period, when many of the masters were killed. The arts were also prohibited, under pain of death, during the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia. After nearly two decades of decay and destruction, many Khmers are working hard to rebuild this martial tradition. Seila Yuthkun, Vice President of the Khmer Martial Arts Games Committee, is one of those who is dedicated to finding the old masters, bringing them together, forming federations, and teaching the arts to the young people.

This is no easy task in a country that is recovering from more than 150 years of occupation and colonization, as well as an auto-genocide, which claimed the lives of nearly a quarter of the population. A Phnom Penh sports magazine recently ran a story about an 81 year old man, one of the last remaining people who is familiar with the oldest of the Khmer martial arts, Bogotao. The article went on to say that this man had studied Bogotao for only two years, and that was more than sixty years ago. They also said that this man had never taught students because the art was supposed to remain a secret. With experts being so few and so old, if two years of training could really be considered an expert, and with the old tradition of secrecy, it will be difficult to preserve this ancient heritage.

There is no lack of interest among young people, however. They all want to learn martial arts. But in speaking to Seila and other officials of the Cambodian Martial Arts Games Committee, the problem seems to be the popularity of foreign arts such as Tae Kwon Do, Karate, Judo, and Chinese Kung Fu, distracts Khmer young people from learning their traditional arts. Other issues include the fact that many of these arts offer students the opportunity to earn belts and to compete internationally. Judo has long been an Olympic sport. Now Kung Fu has been added to the Asian games as well as to the Beijing Olympics. Some students may see studying Khmer martial arts as a lot of hard work, with no reward at the end.

The one Khmer art that has survived intact is Khmer boxing, the national sport of Cambodia. Khmer boxing is a kind of kick boxing, utilizing kicks, punches, and elbow and knee strikes. It is very similar to the Muay Thai practiced in Thailand. The Khmers claim, and are most likely right, that they invented Khmer boxing and the art was later stolen by the Thais. Although the Khmers seem to take some consolation in the fact that they invented the sport, this is a mute point. The reality is that although the art of Khmer boxing is more widely practiced in Cambodia, almost every single Khmer male can kick though the real professional circuit is in Thailand. Top fighters in Cambodia will rarely earn even $1,000 US. A recent title fight carried a purse of $70.

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