At Prime Minister Hun Sen’s behest, Cambodia has granted a Brazilian kickboxer and his wife citizenship for promoting Kun Khmer, the national sport, in the latest development in a controversy with Thailand, which calls the sport Muay Thai.
Hun Sen also gave a U.S.$20,000 sponsorship to Thiago Teixeira, 34, who with his wife Roma Maria Rozanska-Steffen, an American citizen, became naturalized Cambodian citizens by King Norodom Sihamoni through a royal decree dated April 11, the Phnom Penh Post reported.
The announcement came after the World Muay Thai Organization, or WMO, stripped Teixeira of a middleweight title that he won at the Apex Fight Series on April 1 in Germany, during which he waved Cambodia’s flag.
Teixeira had said he wanted to represent Kun Khmer instead of being a Muay Thai fighter, despite training in the Thai sport for years. The two martial art forms — the most popular sports in their respective countries — are nearly identical and involve punching, kneeing and kicking opponents. But Cambodians argue that the sport originated from their culture, while Thais say it belongs to them.
Cambodia has removed Muay Thai from a list of sports included in this year’s Southeast Asia Games, replacing it with Kun Khmer, amid a larger push for the national sport to gain international recognition. The biennial sports event will be held in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh on May 5-17.
Critics said the prime minister was using the issue to try to increase his popularity among Cambodian voters ahead of July’s general election.
Legal expert Vorn Chan Lout said Cambodia should be extra cautious before granting citizenship to foreigners because the law requires them to live in the country for three years and understand its culture to be eligible.
“Politicians are smart to take advantage of events, but the most important thing is the government needs to have a long-term vision in order to pay gratitude to all athletes,” he said.
Cambodia’s Citizenship Law allows foreigners to acquire citizenship through marriage and naturalization, though they must stay in the Southeast Asian nation for three years.
Am Sam Ath of Licadho said Hun Sen’s government should support Cambodia’s home-grown martial arts athletes rather than foreign ones.
“I urge the government to pay attention to Kun Khmer and to encourage athletes with sufficient training so they are able to fight,” he said.
Cambodian kickboxers have complained that they are underpaid in the sport.
Veteran Kun Khmer fighter Vong Noy said he stopped fighting because his earnings from the sport were not enough to support his family or pay medical bills for injuries he sustained during fights.
“I stopped fighting now because I have been fighting for many years,” he wrote on Facebook. “I got famous, but I am facing financial issues, and I’m afraid that I will become disabled and not make enough money to raise my children.”
RFA could not reach Teixeira for comment, but he told local media during a press conference in Phnom Penh after signing a contract with the World Champion Kun Khmer Club, that he already considered Cambodia his home and he would help promote Kun Khmer to the rest of the world.
Translated by Samean Yun for RFA Khmer. Edited by Roseanne Gerin and Malcolm Foster.