Plight of people strikes at heart of up-and-coming Kachin MMA fighter
Aung La N Sang is a dominant force inside US cages, but outside them he is a circumspect, proud native son committed to helping his ethnic group in their fight for survival in any way he can
Aung La N Sang could well be the most high-profile sporting export of newly opened up Myanmar, but he is fighting for far more than fame and prize money. Before his most recent fight in the Cage Fury Fighting Championship (CFFC) at the Dover Downs Hotel and Casino in the US state of Delaware on Oct 13, the mixed martial arts (MMA) exponent from Kachin state boldly predicted on TV he would knock out his opponent in the first round.
With a flurry of head shots, the 27 year old delivered on cue, knocking Jason Louck to the canvas in two minutes and 30 seconds. As soon as he won he held aloft a Kachin flag and vowed to donate part of his purse to help the estimated 70,000 refugees displaced by the Kachin Independence Army's (KIA) renewed fighting with the Myanmar military.
"I felt sad when I heard the news and before the match I had already announced I would fight for my people. Now I will send 25% of my fight purse for the refugees. I hope it will offer a little bit of relief,"Aung La said after his victory. "My message to them [the refugees] is we want to help them as much as we can. I want to keep trying for them. Hopefully there will be more people who will get involved and help them."
Although he is called the Burmese Python for his lightning moves, Aung La is Kachin through and through. He has the word "Jinghpaw" tattooed on his shoulder, the Chinese term for a Kachin, next to a pair of wings representing freedom for his people.
"I gave the [Kachin] flag to my trainer and after I won I asked him to give me the flag. I showed the flag and I am proud that I am Kachin." Aung La fights in the welterweight division of the CFFC, a professional mixed martial arts event which combines the skills of boxing, judo, taekwondo, Greco-Roman wrestling, kick-boxing and jujitsu.
In the CFFC he has a 14-8 win-loss record. Although he doesn't know who his next opponent will be, Aung La hopes the victory over Louck will eventually earn him a title shot against the current CFFC welterweight champion George Sullivan.
As word of Aung La's loyalty and act of generosity was spread by social media, especially Facebook, he became an instant hero to some Kachin who had not heard of him before.
"I saw that he was holding the Kachin flag and it was great," said Kachin youngster, Maw Li Zinghang from Lai Za, on the Myanmar-Chinese border.
THE CLASHING KACHIN: Above and below, Aung La hard at work in the gym. Following a recent MMA victory, Aung La promised to donate part of his purse to help Kachin refugees.
"He tried to advocate for the Kachin people who are suffering from a civil war. I think it is a great example for the Kachin people. Wherever we are we should try to help each other in times of difficulty. I hope he will win more victories."
Aung La was born in Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State, before moving to Yangon where he studied at the International School Yangon.
"When I was young I was very happy in Myitkyina," he recalled. "I liked to go back while I was studying in Yangon. I am very fond of the food and the scenery of Myitkyina, especially Myitsone on the Irrawaddy River".
Although he earns his living in a tough sport, Aung La is a quiet man out of the ring and is known for his humble and polite demeanour. During our interview he often apologised for his poor Myanmar language skills and we communicated in English.
He lists his hobbies as cooking and fishing and says the only things he really hates are corruption and bullies.
In 2003 he moved to the US to study agricultural science at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan, with the long-term aim of passing on his knowledge to farmers back home. He says the early days in America were a culture shock and he struggled to adapt.
However, his mixed martial arts hobby soon became as important as his studies when he started training in 2004 and entered amateur competitions a year later. In 2008 he turned professional and joined the Crazy 88 BJJ team.
He trains for five hours a day, and hopes that his hard work will eventually pay off with a champion's title.
"My dream in the future is to be a champion and the best fighter and to help other people realise their dreams," he says.
He lives in Elkride, Maryland, and three of his siblings are scattered in other cities across the US.
Aung La said he decided to seek political asylum around 2005 when he realised he could not fulfil his dream of fighting professionally if he returned to Myanmar.
"Asylum allows me to stay here and continue my studies and to be an MMA fighter," he said.
"I know that I would not be able to pursue my dream if I went back home. I can't do that any more if I go back to Burma [Myanmar]. If I went back to Burma what would I become? In Burma, there is no way I can become a good MMA fighter."
News of the plight of the Kachin people following the end of the ceasefire last year reached Aung La through an older brother who lives in Thailand and by reading the Kachin News Agency.
"The thing that really inspired me to help the Kachin refugees was the fact that my friends and family from Myitkyina were being affected by the war," he said. "I know that there are many others out there that are in a worse position than them. It was my conscience that told me that something needs to be done.
"Knowing that I can shed some light on the situation inspired me to help them".
United Nations assistance cannot reach the internally displaced people and refugees hiding in remote areas of Kachin state. Thousands are facing a dire struggle for survival, with reports of child malnutrition due to a shortage of food and clean water. The UN office in Yangon said it is difficult to get aid through to the areas most in need due to security problems caused by the renewed fighting. Much of the aid supplies are sitting at Myitkyina and Bamaw.
Aung La says his gesture may only be symbolic when compared to the greater needs of his people, but it is still an important one to make.
"I hate war. It's very unfortunate I can't do anything about it. I can't do anything concrete," he said, adding that two of his uncles had died in the long-running conflict.
"But what I can do is to raise awareness of the war and to help a few families in need.
"War only brings sadness. The main thing is that I keep fighting, trying and representing my people."
Aung La said he had witnessed the bullying, injustice and inequality of the ruling military junta when he was growing up.
"I believe that what the KIA are fighting for is good and I believe that they should keep fighting for what they believe in," he said. Despite the troubles back home, Aung La still hopes he can return to Myitkyina and set up a gym with traditional boxers.
"I want to go home to Myitkyina, to Burma, to Kachin state. Maybe one day I can come back and I can do something for the people," he said.
About the author
Writer: Ko Htwe