Muay Thai or Kun Khmer? Crisis over name of event at Southeast Asian Games averted

Thailand called off its threat to boycott a kickboxing event at this year’s Southeast Asian Games in Cambodia after the two countries resolved a dispute over the name of a sometimes violent sport that the host country calls “Kun Khmer” but which Thais call “Muay Thai.”

The dispute over the proper name for the sport, which involves punching, kicking and jabbing one’s knees into an opponent’s stomach, has raged for years.

Muay Thai is the national sport of Thailand, and the sport is widely known around the world by that name. But the Cambodian organizing committee for the games claimed Cambodia has cultural ownership of Kun Khmer and it would use that term to avoid confusion.

The dispute got so heated that the Thailand-based International Federation of Muaythai Associations threatened that it would fine and ban other countries from future Muay Thai events if they participate in what is often called the SEA Games, scheduled for May 5-17.

Thailand withdrew its protest after the Cambodian side explained that using a Khmer language name for the name of a Khmer martial art had no effect on the name or the form of any Thai sport, said Vath Chamroeun, secretary-general of the Cambodian Southeast Asian Games Organising Committee and the National Olympic Committee of Cambodia.

He also said that even if Thailand had kept its kickboxers out of the event, it would still go on as planned, and under the name Kun Khmer because in addition to Cambodia, six countries – Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam – had already agreed to participate, and only four are necessary to keep it on the schedule.

"We are following the rules of the sport, which states that the host country has the right to participate in the tournament, but must have four countries agree to also participate, and we were able to resolve this peacefully,” said Vath Chamroeun.

He called for restraint among the heated factions, asking that they calm down and refrain from accusing each other of causing problems.

“Instead, we should develop what is ours, and they should develop what is theirs,” he said.

Cultural rivalry

The dispute over the name of the sport is more than simple linguistic difference. The opposing names stoke the flames of nationalism and rivalry in both countries, which have seen friction in many other arenas, including a decades old border dispute over the area surrounding an ancient temple and World Heritage Site that resulted in bloody skirmishes as recently as 2011.

Asian MMA, a media outlet that covers mixed martial arts news in the region, treats them as if they are the same sport.

“The two sports are basically identical but while Muay Thai is globally recognized, Kun Khmer is completely unknown outside of Cambodia,” said an Asian MMA report about the Southeast Asian Games dispute published Wednesday.

A 2019 Phnom Penh Post report said that “there are no major differences between the two combat sports – the rules are the same, with a slight difference in how they score the match.”

“Also, Thai fighters are more technical while their Cambodian counterparts are known for their brutal elbows and knees.”

The name has caused conflicts at previous SEA Games, according to Asian MMA.

In 2005, Cambodia refused to send its team in protest that the kickboxing event was called Muay Thai, and in 1995, at an ASEAN meeting, Cambodia petitioned unsuccessfully to change the official name of the sport to the more neutral “Sovannaphum Boxing” or “SEA Boxing,” arguing that the sport has origins in Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar, in addition to Thailand.

Radio Free Asia --Copyright © 1998-2016, RFA. Used with the permission of Radio Free Asia, 2025 M St. NW, Suite 300, Washington DC 20036