This article was originally published in The Irrawaddy, an independent news website in Myanmar. This edited version is republished on Global Voices as part of a content-sharing agreement.
Vero Nika, 26, the first female lethwei fighter from Myanmar to win a belt in the sport, beat a Brazilian fighter with 25 wins in a Muay Thai tournament in Bangkok, thereby securing her world number one spot, according to the World Muay Thai Organization.
The ethnic Kayan boxer won bronze for Myanmar in the Southeast Asian Games in Singapore in 2015.
Following the February coup last year, she left for Thailand, where she started competing in Muay Thai in the 53kg bantamweight class.
The Kayan fighting phenomenon recently talked to The Irrawaddy about victory, defeat, her plans, and the military takeover.
The Irrawaddy (TI): Tell us about your fights.
Vero Nika (VN): I have fought eight Muay Thai bouts. I lost the first and won the rest. I still have two bouts to fight this year on November 20 and December 24. One is against a Thai fighter.
I have been only able to rest for five days after each bout because there is usually a match every month. Before I could rest for two to three months. If I win in November, I will fight in December without a break.
TI: What difficulties did you experience when you started competing in Muay Thai?
VN: It is easier for me now. Previously, I could not follow the style. But things are easier now.
In boxing, you can only use your fists. But in Muay Thai you can also use your elbows. I didn’t have much confidence when I boxed, perhaps because I had little experience. But I have no fear in Muay Thai. I fight to win.
TI: We heard that you have been living in Thailand and that you participated in anti-junta protests. What difficulties did you have in coming to Thailand?
VN: After the coup, I was widely named as an opposition figure. Some said I was in the forests with the revolutionaries but I was in Yangon.
There were a lot of lies about me so I didn’t feel safe. A friend asked what I wanted to do.
I wanted to continue doing lethwei but it was not safe for me in Myanmar to continue my boxing career. So I decided to leave. It was around October last year.
TI: How is Thailand?
VN: It depends on how I view it. I don’t have my own money. I left with only the clothes on my back. I had nothing. My friend helped me with everything. Things were a little difficult when I arrived but it is better now.
TI: What is your view on the junta?
VN: I hate the dictatorship. I already suffered from it when I was young. I was frightened and would hide in my house and cover my ears if I heard people speaking Burmese.
My village was not far from a military base. Soldiers came and took what they wanted.
They killed and ate our chickens. There were many rape cases back then.
I don’t want to relive those memories. I don’t want to live in fear anymore. Back then we could not afford to go to school and there were heavy taxes. I don’t want to see them again. I don’t like it.
TI: How is your family in Myanmar?
VN: They flee into the hills when there is fighting and return home when it stops.
Civilians across the country, including in Karen State, are being killed by the regime.
I didn’t think things would go this wrong after the coup. I couldn’t help crying whenever I see reports of killings. And I could do nothing else except feel sorry for them. I want to defeat the dictatorship and support those fighting it. But I can do nothing.
TI: How did you get into lethwei?
VN: I started when I was young. At school in Pekon, I enrolled in a boxing class.
I am not interested in anything except this sport. I can devote all my life to becoming a champion. I left my family and loved ones for this sport. I am obsessed with it and it is my absolute necessity.
TI: What challenges have you faced as a woman in a combat sport? How did you overcome them?
VN: It was not particularly tough. I like hard work. I don’t like it when I get injured in training.
But the main problem is menstruation. It is really irritating. I can’t train during my period and it hurts a lot. Several fights have coincided with my period. I have to take care of myself a lot.
I want to win the fight in December and become the black belt champion. Then I want to join the One Championship [a Singapore-based mixed-martial arts competition] next year. This is what I want the most.
TI: People support you despite their serious hardships. What do you want to tell them?
VN: I respect every supporter. I learned that they were watching my fights despite internet restrictions. I urge them to take care of themselves and stay safe. I will try my best and please continue to support me.