Srab Srouey Working to Unite Muay Thai
By Mike LNg
Srab Srouey is a unique entity in the United States and probably much of the world. It’s been reasonably documented in the past the argument between Khmer and Thai communities about which came first Muay Thai or Pradal Serey. Srab instead works to unite both communities of Cambodia and Thailand and to celebrate and support not only the sport but the culture of South East Asian martial arts as a whole. Through Srab’s concerted efforts with his organization Filipino arts, Thai arts and Cambodian arts are represented to the public in Washington state and the Northwest. This represents not only Muay Thai and Pradal Serey but traditional folk dance as well. It was a pleasure to talk about these topics with Srab Srouey.
How did you get your start in Khmer boxing?
I was influenced by my grandpa’s fighting. In his day my grandpa was a busy fighter and would fight at many festivals in our community in Cambodia. Much of my family and my friends were always fighting and training. I grew to love Pradal Serey through them and would eventually fight as well.
In Cambodia my father would not let me fight and never liked it. But my grand father loved it. Many of my friends were fighters. Following the war I moved to Surin near the Thai border and my friends became involved in the fight circuit there. I was 15 at the time of my first fight. I trained in secret from my father because he disliked the fighting. I mostly fought in festival show fights. I did it out of love for the sport and really never to get money or fame.
What made you decide to teach Americans this sport once you moved to Washington?
It started because I taught my son in my back yard and my neighbor got curious and wanted to learn in my garage. So, I started teaching my neighbors in my garage. Then I started to teach in a gym. The gym is a nice facility with 2500 sq feet gym. But I still teach my neighbors in my garage also. They started there and I guess they feel more comfortable in that environment.
You are one of the founders of the United Southeast Asian Cultural Association (USEACA) organization. What prompted you to create USECA?
I founded the USEACA organization with my family and with Laos, Thais and Cambodians. I saw a need to represent a united effort between all the ethnicities among South East Asians. I wanted to do something for the community and express our love for the art and sport. We want to show everyone that we are united and support the art. We are all Americans and the differences between communities from South East Asia need to be put aside for the greater good. After all, if we don’t do it and represent ourselves who will? So we founded USEACA in 2007 with Muay Thai, Muay Lao, and Kun Khmer being represented.
I noticed that USEACA as well as being a sanction for Muay Thai/Khmer boxing is also a cultural movement to preserve South East Asian art and dance. What made you decide to bring South East Asian martial arts into one house despite style differences?
I think we belong all in one house. Kun Khmer and Muay Thai all come from the same place. Technique and tactics are the same whether it is Muay Lao, Muay Thai and Kun Khmer. The parent art is the same. I do have to emphasize that Muay Boran is different. In my opinion the classical martial of Muay Boran is a bit more complete. Muay Thai and Pradal Serey is like maybe 10% of the total knowledge the parent art represents.
Do you ever have pride rivalries between styles or ethnic groups?
No, not really all of us are very family oriented. And we’re all immigrants from the same place. They understand the importance of family and being united. America kind of flattens out differences. Its much different in America than in our home countries.
What are some of the things USEACA does to develop Muay Thai in the northwest United States?
To begin with we sanction fights and events for Muay Thai and we are nearly alone in that in the Northwest. We are the only Kun Khmer and Muay Thai sanction in the state of Washington. But in addition, to developing fighters in Pradal Serey we also try to educate the public in the state about South East Asian culture.
We have 2 big events a year one: in April and November. So there is some Muay Thai in the Northwest but mostly the fight scene is mixed martial arts. There is slow growth but it’s mostly a grass-roots movement.
Unlike some gym owners who do a gym full time and commercially you also have a day job. How do you balance between gym time and your home life?
No, I am used to it. For me it just seems like a normal schedule. Muay Thai and Kun Khmer is a part of my everyday life. The way I look at it is it beats what a lot of people do after work. They may be drinking or watching television. I get to train fighters and develop the sport I love. That is what makes me happy.
Saohin Srisuk recently joined your gym as a member of the teaching staff at South Sound Martial Arts. What sort of things does Saohin bring that are unique to the gym?
Saohin brings a lot of knowledge and can run classes if I am en route to class or teaching myself. Saohin has very good training and does his best to promote Muay Thai in the Northwest. I think Saohin can teach better technique than what most students have seen. He tries to emphasize preparation with technique and solid training.
How would you like to see Muay Thai and Khmer boxing to develop in the Northwest?
I would like to see Muay Thai and Kun Khmer grow stronger together. I have no bias towards any one name. I’d like to see both become one identity and grow stronger together. We all work together which is what our arts need. I work closely with Master John and they can come to me and I will advise them and vice versa. We all recognize that its our art and our strength.
One of the things that struck me was how unique USEACA is in all of the United States. Do you get much acknowledgment among the Muay Thai community for this?
Some organizations have expressed their appreciation through their members. For example Mike Walrath of Thai Boxing Association has noticed us. But beyond personal correspondence nothing so direct as an award or anything of that nature. I really want USEACA’s expression to grow in the art and the sport. I am not so much about the accolades or recognition for my efforts or USEACA’s. I love the art and I want it to grow. That’s what USEACA wants to accomplish.
As someone who teaches students at all levels what is the most important thing for someone to learn who wants to also compete?
I tell my students, “a good tree has good roots”. I make sure they have solid fundamentals before competing. I emphasize step by step instruction. It reminds me of my youngest students learning the basics. My youngest student is 4 years old and they are learning the same techniques any ring fighter will need to know.
In the online community there seems to be some schism between Kun Khmer followers and Muay Thai fans. Does it matter much to you who came up with the style first?
For me we all (Thais and Khmer) have one original source martial art. What matters is that it’s the 21st century and that debate is no longer relevant. Its more important that we work together and we all become stronger together. All of these styles are the science of 8 limbs. If we don’t promote it and support it who will? We all need to move on beyond the infighting over small issues and move on. What’s more important is securing our future.
What is the representative area for USEACA?
Geographically we cover parts of Canada, Washington, Oregon and we have some presence in San Fransisco, California.
Will USEACA be expanding into other regions of the United States?
We are open to everyone, anywhere in the United States. We are willing to work with whoever wants to support us and the goals of USEACA. By definition we aren’t restricted to any region or nationalities.
Do you often find people who train in South East Asian martial arts also want to further their knowledge of South East Asian culture?
Sometimes, it depends on the person. Because of the interest we offer traditional Khmer dance as well as Kun Khmer and Muay Thai through USEACA. It’s important to preserve the art and style.
Do you have any professional fighters yet?
Not yet but we had a 4-man tournament recently which my student, Jonah Villamar won and is a champion. Recently though, Washington state announced they will not allow any more tournaments *. I was notified of this via a letter from the Washington State Athletic Commission. Apparently, at one MMA tournament held in Washington a fighter ended up dying due to injuries from a fight.
* Defined in Washington State Athletic Commission Bill 1062 Section 5.
USEACA did recently awarded a championship to Ciara Irvin from Big Foot gym.
There is an ongoing debate about the importance of adhering to tradition whther Thai, Lao, or Khmer. How important is it that boxers perform the wai kru in the ring?
In American society they do not always have the understanding of the importance of wai kru. To fight true Muay Thai it is very important. It represents the culture where Muay Thai comes from. It pays respect to your teacher and your gym. It’s not an activity that can be separated from Muay Thai in my opinion.
Is it also important to learn the South East Asian terms for techniques like kicks or elbows?
In my opinion, right now in USA in the 21st century it is not as important. Something like the native language terminology is not essential. We don’t teach language in these classes. But the wai kru is essential to doing real Muay Thai. Sometimes we teach the terminology but it’s not important.
Many people who study far east martial arts emphasize some of the more personal development aspects of martial arts like discipline and humbleness. Do you feel these are important to South East Asian martial arts?
To me the respect is part of the training. To develop the art we have to have people to develop the discipline more. It’s important to show respect for others and the art because it’s much more dangerous than something more classical like karate or taekwondo. If the proper respect and discipline is not being shown in a student I will pass on the student or kick them out if they aren’t humble. Disrespect and a lack of humbleness is bad for the sport and art.
What would you like our readers to know about USECA and what they have in store for the future?
I want people to know that USEACA exists to promote the art and we want to make the Northwest a true home for Pradal Serey and Muay Thai. I want to bring people from different parts of the USA to compete. I want the sport to grown beyond the grass roots.