At the age of 80, Mao Khann is not to be trifled with. In the croaking rasp of a veteran smoker, she related how she recently took on eight men harassing her grown-up son. Putting her 66 years of martial arts training to the test, she sent the gang of ruffians running for the hills of her native Kampot province.
Last week, Mao Khann was among 307 practitioners of the Cambodian martial art of bokator who flocked to Phnom Penh for the country’s first-ever national championship of this all-but-forgotten fighting system.
“I might die soon,” Mao Khann said on Saturday morning as she and other fighters showed their varying degrees of mastery of the art-which nearly died out completely under the Khmer Rouge regime.
“Today I am so proud to show my technique to the younger generation,” she said.
But by the time the sun set on Olympic Stadium, those feelings of pride gave way to accusations of a rigged competition and promises of a lifelong boycott.
Many provincial bokator masters now believe that the Yuthkun Khmer Foundation, which organized the event, unfairly awarded nearly all the prizes to fighters from Phnom Penh.
Twenty awards were handed out over the course of the five-day competition for both fighting and individual displays of technique-only two went to the entrants from the provinces.
“I am very upset and won’t come back again,” said Meas Sarann, 61, a bokator trainer for the Seila Angkor Club in Siem Reap province.
“They cheated us; we won’t trust Phnom Penh people again,” he said.
Organizers in Phnom Penh admitted that the event had experienced some problems, but dismissed claims that city people had cheated the competitors from the provinces.
Meas Sok, a trainer from Kampot town, said that he was positive that the competition was skewed in favor of the capital.
“Why was there such unfair treatment between Phnom Penh clubs and provincial clubs?” he asked.
“I saw that my club…always got perfect scores, so why didn’t we receive a single prize?”
Sorm Van Kin, leader of Club Korma Tep Meanrith in Kompong Chhnang province and a judge at the competition, was another trainer who said he would boycott any future Yuthkun Khmer Federation competitions.
“I would rather that my knowledge of bokator died with me than display it so others can reap all the benefits,” Sorm Van Kin said.
Many older bokator enthusiasts derided the style of the youthful competitors, particularly those from Phnom Penh.
The general feeling was that many were not using true bokator, but rather a mutated hybrid that included large doses of Tae Kwon Do and Judo.
“These fighters are not fighting with real bokator techniques,” said Meas Sok, the 61-year-old trainer from Kampot. “Some of these kids look like crabs walking,” he added.
The flailing frenzy of the fights certainly was sharply different from the flowing movements of older competitors.
The provincial trainers kept low, protecting their bodies while they looked for openings to hit. The younger fighters struck violently and often, their ungloved hands gashing opponents’ heads or knocking out teeth.
Ros Serey, 50, trainer for the Rasmei Angkor Club in Siem Reap and judge during the competition, said that even though they had earned such few medals, provincial fighters had held their own against their Phnom Penh rivals.
“I gave the scores myself,” he said. “I know that provincial bokator should have had more winners.”
Ros Serey said that he was so disgusted that he would shave his head as part of a solemn vow to never again participate in the bokator championship.
Hok Chheang Kim, an organizer for the event, maintained that the judging was fair and the real problem was that the provincial club leaders didn’t fully understand the rules.
“This is of our mistake, because [the judges] were only trained for three days before the event,” he said, adding that only one of the seven judges was from Phnom Penh.
Hok Chheang Kim said that the provincial judges were not looking at the big picture.
“Sometimes, only one judge gave a good score, but the others gave bad scores,” he said.
With his club walking away with 12 of the 20 medals, San Kim Sean, an organizer of the competition and grand master of his own Phnom Penh bokator club, said the controversy or the boycott didn’t concern him.
“I’m not worried about bokator suffering because of 20 old people who are not happy,” he said.
In the end, no competitor left completely empty-handed.
Every fighter is to receive $10 from the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports.
Chea Chamreoun, an adviser to the government who presided over the championship, also announced that every competitor would receive an additional $2.50, directly from Prime Minister Hun Sen.
“Our bokator is reborn today,” Chea Chamreoun told the crowd of spectators.
But Meas Sarann, the trainer from Siem Reap, couldn’t have agreed less.
“[B]okator may have been reborn in the morning,” he said of Saturday’s competition. “But it died by evening time.”