Army's role in boxing a shady affair
Lumpinee Boxing Stadium, located on the grounds of the Royal Thai Army Sports Centre on Ram Intra road in Bangkok's suburbs, has earned a bad reputation after being blamed for a Covid-19 cluster which has, so far, infected more than 50 people with the deadly disease.
The 50-plus people include a TV celebrity who is also a boxing camp owner, boxing fans and officials who turned up at the boxing stadium on March 6, and others who were not at the stadium but were later in close contact with the infected. There were about 5,000 spectators from different parts of the country at the stadium that night, watching the Thai boxing super matches titled Champion Kiatpetch, featuring 11 bouts between top local fighters.
Nobody knows for sure how far the contagion has spread out from this cluster and how many more will be infected. Public health officials have been counting new infections on a daily basis, including those related to this cluster, as they scatter throughout the provinces. The damage is devastating.
But what has provoked public anger is not the event itself or the boxing fans, including some who unknowingly have had the virus in their bodies, but the irresponsibility and lack of concern for public safety shown by the management of the stadium, especially its manager, Maj-Gen Rachit Arunrangsi, head of the Army Welfare Department.
On March 3, the Sports Authority of Thailand has sent a letter to the stadium manager seeking his cooperation to postpone the boxing event in compliance with a cabinet directive. The cabinet resolution asked state agencies to seek cooperation with the private sector to suspend all activities likely to draw large crowds, such as sports events, concerts and entertainment shows, due to the threat of Covid-19.
But the Sports Authority of Thailand's request was ignored and the "big match" boxing event went ahead, resulting in the cluster infection and a worsening situation that would have been avoided had the people in charge of the stadium put public interest before their own vested interests.
Army Commander-in-Chief Gen Apirat Kongsompong who is also chairman of the board of the boxing stadium has ordered an investigation into the matter and promised a transparent and straightforward probe.
All the army officers involved in the event, as well as Maj-Gen Rachit himself, who is among the 50 infected by the virus, have been transferred to inactive posts, pending the findings.
Many people, myself included, doubt the probe will lead to any decisive punitive action against the "big fish". There will, however, likely be some "small fry" who end up as scapegoats.
In his capacity as chairman of the boxing stadium, I wonder whether the probe team, headed by director of the Army Personnel Department, will dare to probe the army chief himself. Worse, we are yet to hear any public apology from him.
Even if the officers involved are punished, it should not be the end of this unforgivable affair. Inevitably, the reputation of the army has been tainted and will remain so unless it rethinks its role in promoting Thai boxing as a form of Thai martial arts and in managing the boxing stadium.
Simply said, Thai professional boxing is all about gambling and big money. Gambling on Muay Thai boxing is estimated to worth about 40 billion baht a year. So, all the talk about the promotion of Thai martial arts is just baloney.
There is no need for the army to promote professional Thai boxing any more. According to Rattapong Sornsuparb of the Social Innovations Faculty of Rangsit University, there are more than 3,800 Thai boxing gyms overseas, promoting Thai boxing among many foreigners who are familiar with it.
Since the promulgation of the Thai Professional Boxing Act in 1997, Thai boxing has evolved considerably and many boxing camps have adapted to ensure their survival. Boxing classes have been introduced in fitness clubs as a form of exercise-cum-self defence activity.
Boxing matches have also been transformed into sports entertainment, such as the Thai Fight programme, for online and TV audiences, both domestic and overseas, thanks to the advent of digital TV.
This means more revenue from advertising and gambling. Well-known former Thai boxer Somrak Kamsing once told a panel discussion that gambling and match-fixing are an integral part of professional Thai boxing.
One infamous alleged match-fixing case was the bout on Oct 12, 2014 in Pattaya between top Thai boxer Buakaw Banchamek and his challenger, Enrique Kehl, at the K-1 World Max Final event.
Buakaw walked out of the ring in the fourth round after the two fighters scored a draw in the first three rounds. The walkout stunned the spectators at the stadium and those watching on TV. The referee then declared Enrique the new K-1 champion.
Buakaw told the media after the fight that he decided to quit the fight in the 4th round to protect his name and the reputation of Thai boxing, hinting that the match was fixed before the fight even begun.
So, given the sport's history of chicanery and shady business, why does our army continue to insist on getting involved and tainting its reputation at all?
Veera Prateepchaikul is former editor, Bangkok Post.
Former Bangkok Post Editor, political commentator and a regular columnist at Post Publishing.