brooklynmonk

The Never Ending Bokator Argument

In Uncategorized on September 5, 2015 at 9:43 am

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By Antonio Graceffo

A friend sent me a Phnom Penh Post story about yutakhun khom the traditional Khmer martial art of Master Chan Boeunthoeun. In the article, Chan Boeunthoeun claims that his martial art is older and more authentic than the Bokator of Grand Master San Kim Saen. Chan Boeunthoeun has apparently gone so far as to solicit UNESCO to remove Bokator from the Intangible Cultural Heritage, martial arts list, in favor of his yuthakhun Khom. The whole argument is preposterous on so many levels. But before I explain how baseless this argument is, let me first say one thing. I have huge respect for Chan Boeunthoeun who taught his son Chan Rothana to combine traditional Khmer martial arts with bradal serey kick boxing, which Chan Rothana then used, successfully, in over 90 professional bradal serey kick boxing fights. Chan Rothana even used a combination of traditional Khmer techniques, plus bradal serey and some modern MMA to become a One FC fighter and to amass a professional MMA record of 3 wins and 1 loss.

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There should be no question about Chan Rothana’s courage, or the fighting effectiveness of his martial. He definitely walks the walk. And I respect that. But there is no evidence of any kind to prove that yutakhun khom is older than Bokator or that the word yutakhun khom even existed prior to 2012.

Leading up to 2004, Chan Boeunthoeun used to be friends with Bokator Grand Master, San Kim Saen. They had both been part of the Hopkido federation and worked together to found the original Bokator Federation in 2004. They then had a falling out, and Chan Boeunthoeun left (or was asked to leave) the Bokator federation. Chan Boeunthoeun continued to teach Bokator out of his home until about 2012, when he suddenly decided that he was one of the two last remaining masters of yutakhun khom, which he claimed was the real Khmer traditional martial art.

In 2012, The National Olympic Committee of Cambodia, working together with Grand Master San Kim Saen, managed to get Bokator recognized by UNESCO on the Intangible Cultural Heritage, martial arts list. Before 2012, Cambodia had NOTHING on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage, martial arts list. Thailand had Muay Thai. Japan had Judo. Korea had Taekkyeon, but Cambodia had no official martial art until 2012, when the Bokator of Grand Master San Kim Saen was recognized. Since then, a number of other Cambodians have suddenly come forward, claiming to be teaching even older styles of Cambodian martial arts. In 2004, most of those masters, including Chan Boeunthoeun, were at the national meeting in Phnom Penh when the Bokator association was founded. Many of them were founding members of Bokator. So, if they actually knew of some other, older, better martial art, why did they wait until 2012 to talk about it?

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A Google search for “yutakhun khom” revealed the earliest online mention of the art was a post in a Sherdog.com forum in 2012.

The Phnom Penh Post story had this quote from Benoit Rigallaud, the manager of Chan Rothana and owner of the studio where yutakhun khom is taught, “’UNESCO giving bokator Intangible Heritage Asset status was a concern to the yutakhun khom community, and should be to all Cambodians, because ‘they failed to conduct a full investigation”’” Full investigation! Of what? The only evidence yutakhun khom has is the legend of a magical book of the ancient martial arts techniques which was allegedly hidden for Centuries and then finally destroyed by the Khmer Rouge.

Is it possible that someone who has a financial interest in yutakhun khom being recognized has a slightly biased opinion? And, when did opinion become fact? There doesn’t seem to be a shred of evidence to support the claims of yutakhun khom having existed. In fact the word does not appear in the 1936 dictionary of the Khmer language. Neither are there any ancient writings using that word, apart from the magical book which was destroyed by the Khmer Rouge.

Another quote from Benoit Rigallaud, “This is crazy, because we are talking about history and culture here, and if heritage is lost then it is gone forever.” If Benoit Rigallaud and Chan Boeunthoeun succeed in getting Bokator removed from the UNESCO list, then Cambodia will be losing its cultural heritage. And I agree, that is crazy.

As for the “history” of Bokator, I interviewed Chan Boeunthoeun, the first time, in 2007 in connection with the TV show, Human Weapon. At that time, Chan Boeunthoeun still called his style Bokator. He mentioned the book which had been destroyed as proof of the art. While telling me the history of Bokator, he told me that King Jayavarman VII, the patron of Bokator, and now apparently of yutakhun khom, and Bodhidharma (Da Mo) the founder of Shaolin Kung Fu, were “classmates.” According to Chan Boeunthoeun, Bodhidharma was Khmer, not Indian. Next, he said that King Jayavarman VII taught Bokator to Bodhidharma and Bodhidharma brought Bokator to China and called it Kung Fu. This story astounded me, given that Bodhidharma lived during the 5th and 6th Centuries and King Jayavarman VII lived during the 12th and 13th. When I asked him why history had recorded the story differently, he blamed Thailand. Those damned Thais and their political influence! They got the entire world to change the history of both India and China, just to repress the Khmer martial art of yutakhun khom.

Chan Boeunthoeun’s story, since 2012, has been that he has been teaching yutakhun khom all along and that it was yutakhun khom that King Jayavarman VII supported and that it was yutakhun khom that was in the ancient book which was destroyed.

According to the Phnom Penh Post story, “Boeunthoeun claims yutakhun khom dates back 2,000 years to the Funan kingdom of Southeast Asia, but it was King Jayavarman VII at the height of the Khmer Angkorian empire nearly 1,000 years ago who could be credited with cementing the yuthakun khom philosophy that survives to this day.”” This is the exact same story that has been told about Bokator. And, there is no evidence of either the word Bokator or yuthakun khom in any historical document in Cambodia. During the nearly ten years that I researched my book on Khmer martial arts, I also searched French documents. I searched in Thailand, Lao, and Burma. I spoke to Khmer martial arts teachers and students in USA, Australia, Canada, and Europe. And NO ONE had a book. No one had any evidence of any kind. And during those first many years, pre 2012, I never heard the word yuthakun khom. In fairness, I did here the word yuthakun used for martial art. And there was a yuthakun martial arts club that trained at the techno university in Phnom Penh. But their martial art was admittedly synthetic. They never claimed it to be original Khmer. It was basically a mix of everything from Khmer to karate, to taekwondo and even kung fu and probably judo.

But not one person I interviewed, including Chan Boeunthoeun used the term yuthakun khom.

Given the complete lack of evidence, it would seem more constructive for Khmer people to be happy that they made it to the UNESCO list at all. They should support the traditional martial art, whether it is called Bokator or yuthakun khom, and simply move on. There are so many other problems in the country which need to be addressed before tearing down work that has already been done and replacing it.

Brooklyn Monk, Antonio Graceffo holds a black krama in Khmer martial arts. He is the author of the book, Khun Khmer: Cambodian Martial Arts Journey. He works as a lecturer at Shanghai University. He is also a PhD candidate at Shanghai University of sport, writing his dissertation on comparative forms of Chinese wrestling. He is expected to graduate his China MBA, from Shanghai Jiaotong University, and his PhD in Spring, 2016. Antonio is also a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia, the author of the books, “Warrior Odyssey’ and “The Monk from Brooklyn.” He is also the host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” which traces his ongoing journey through Asia, learning martial arts in various countries.

The Monk from Brooklyn, the book which gave Antonio his name, and all of his other books, the book available at amazon.com. His book, Warrior Odyssey, chronicling Antonio Graceffo’s first six years in Asia, including stories about Khmer and Vietnamese martial arts as well as the war in Burma and the Shan State Army, is available at http://www.blackbeltmag.com/warrior_odyssey

See Antonio’s Destinations video series and find out about his column on http://www.blackbeltmag.com
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