Thai school gives youngsters a fighting chance
NOEN MAPRANG, Thailand, July 4 (Reuters) Dawn breaks over a rice field in rural Thailand as a dozen barefooted children jog along a dirt track.
Among the small figures silhouetted against the slowly brightening sky is Phannipa Chaithes, a shy 12-year-old girl whose quiet voice and skinny build belie her ranking as a national Muay Thai champion.
''Every time I fight, I want to win so I will have money,'' said Phannipa, whose winnings support her family and pay for school.
''That's why I like fighting.'' Phannipa and her twin sister Sawinee are among 40 students who juggle schoolwork with training in Muay Thai, a native martial arts form, at the Suksawittaya school in the north central province of Phitsanulok.
The six-km morning run is only the start of their punishing daily routine that ends at sunset.
After regular school lessons end, Phannipa and the other boxers embark on four hours of rigorous circuit training.
It includes another barefoot run under a scorching afternoon sun, weight training and practising punches, kicks and knees to the groin.
BROKEN HOMES Nearly 70 percent of the 1,200 pupils came from broken homes or were abandoned by their parents, school director Chuchart Khumpuang said.
''This is why we worry about the children, that they mix with the wrong company or do drugs,'' said the former Muay Thai fighter who knows only too well the challenges they face.
Chuchart, 45, boxed his way through school and he says a specialised sports programme -- ranging from Muay Thai and wrestling to soccer and basketball -- can give students a chance in life.
''They can find some money for themselves and go on to a professional career,'' he added.
Muay Thai is wildly popular in the predominately Buddhist country of 64 million people, tracing its roots back hundreds of years through a period when Myanmar and Thailand fought wars regularly.
Professional fighters start training as early as eight years old, most of them from poor rural backgrounds and dreaming of fame and a modest fortune earned in Bangkok's sweaty arenas.
Despite having shed its more deadly past, injuries are still common and fighters learn to live with the cuts and broken bones caused by flying feet, knees and fists.
Phannipa and her sister are lucky that they have suffered nothing more than bruises so far.
HEALTH RISKS Amanda Bissex, a child protection officer with the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) in Bangkok, worries that boxing at such a young age could hurt the physical development of adolescent girls.
''If it's a form of labour that increases the risk of health or developmental problems for the child, then we would be concerned about the school promoting it,'' she said.
The twins say the 1,000 baht () they each earn from fighting once a month supports their 59-year-old grandmother and three cousins who live with them in a bare wooden house.
''It's a little painful, but I can make money for my grandmother,'' said Phannipa, who took home a national title in her 34-kg weight class in March.
Lubhiyat Chaithes still finds it hard to watch her granddaughters in the ring.
''I feel for them every time they fight because I'm afraid they will get hurt,'' she said. ''But if they don't fight, they'll have no money,'' she adds, tears welling.
She can take heart from one thing though.
Phannipa may have a lot of potential, but she has no intention of making a career out of boxing.
''I want to be a doctor. I want to finish school and have a good job.'' REUTERS PM KN0930