The decision to link Muay Thai to Kun Khmer in a combined “Kun Khmer (Muay)” competition at the 32nd Southeast Asian Games (SEA Games) in 2023 – a biennial multi-sport event which Cambodia will be hosting for the first time – has become a hot topic with many sports fans.
Some fans have expressed their displeasure with the decision and used it to attack the Cambodian SEA Games Organising Committee (CAMSOC), saying that the committee isn't displaying sufficient patriotism in its promotion of Kun Khmer martial arts since the competition will be linked to Muay Thai, which is Thailand's kickboxing martial art that is more widely known among international fight fans.
However, in an interview with The Post, CAMSOC secretary-general Vath Chamroeun pointed out that they could not put Kun Khmer into the competition without Muay because it is in the SEA Games charter that any country hosting the games has to use the word Muay for the sport of kickboxing.
"In the charter for the SEA Games, they use Muay without any Kun Khmer mentioned, but because the 2023 SEA Games are being held in our country and we have our own martial arts, we will use the word 'Kun Khmer' at the beginning and keep the word 'Muay', so that we are still doing it legally.
"We use the word 'Muay' according to the same SEA Games charter, but because Cambodia is hosting the SEA Games, we will advertise it as 'Khun Khmer (Muay)'. The charter says that they must be connected like this," he said.
Fans of Cambodia's Khun Khmer and those of Thailand's Muay have long had a rivalry with each other filled with bitter accusations and claims of dubious provenance.
Fans in each country claim that the sport originated with their version and the other is a copy while ignoring all possible nuance or the likelihood that as with most of history, things aren't necessarily as black and white as either side would like to admit.
Although the online accusations and bitterness can seem endless, most ASEAN countries have supported the inclusion of Muay Thai or Muay in SEA Games since 2007, when Thailand hosted the games and Laos, the Philippines, Myanmar, Singapore and Indonesia all competed in the sport.
After 2007, Muay's inclusion at the games has continued in a series of competitions in different host countries.
Cambodia decided to participate in Muay for the first time at the 2017 SEA Games in Malaysia and had a triumphant debut in the sport as Khim Dima won a gold medal and other Cambodian fighters took one silver and two bronze medals.
In addition to that, at the 138th meeting of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in Tokyo in 2021, the IOC also officially recognised Muay Thai and the International Federation of Muay Associations (IFMA).
The introduction of Muay at the Olympic Games is expected to be a positive thing for Kun Khmer with opportunities for kickboxing martial arts fighters having just begun to expand internationally.
Chamroeun, who is also president of the Asian Sports Federation, also claimed that the upcoming 2023 SEA Games in Cambodia will help to solidify the rules and regulations of the sport of Khun Khmer (Muay) and promote the greatness of Khmer martial arts to the world.
“We are the organisers and doers because we have the Asian sports federation with me as president. We want our Khmer martial arts to be one that is unique for our sports culture and our national identity at the SEA Games for global promotion purposes and what we do will not affect similar sports in any other country.
"We only concern ourselves with how we go about competing in our own sport at the SEA Games in our own country. We motivate ourselves, control ourselves and direct ourselves to make sure we are the masters of martial arts, and for that we have two principles.
"First, we preserve the martial arts souls of our ancestors and second, we develop it. So our goal is to conserve and develop, both of which must be in line with our national will, our national politics and our national culture," he said.
Cambodia has not yet determined the weight categories for the Khun Khmer (Muay) competition, but Chamroeun claimed that all 10 countries in the ASEAN region will participate in the sport this year so the competition for medals will be fierce.
"We think the competition will be very tough, but we are among the strongest along with Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam and Laos. Other countries will have a hard time beating the fighters from any of the top picks. As the host and leader of the competition, we'll have many chances to win medals, because at previous SEA Games, [the referees] sometimes weren't fair to Cambodians.
"In terms of the skill level of our Khmer martial artists at the SEA Games in Vietnam, we were among the strongest along with Thailand and the hosts, Vietnam. For the SEA Games in Cambodia, we will respect the principles of justice for all countries that participate in this sport, because Cambodia does not want to leave a bad impression unlike some other host countries," he added.