In Return to Burma, Kachin Cage Fighter Brings Soft Heart and a Hard Right

By Saw Yan Naing 13 January 2016

His family had pegged him for a future as a religious leader, such was his “softhearted” character. You can imagine their surprise, then, as Aung La N Sang has ascended the ranks of mixed martial arts (MMA), a rising star in arguably one of the world’s most violent sports.

“He is the most humble and softhearted person in the family. During childhood, we thought he would one day be a Christian preacher because he is very good with people and loves animals,” recalled N Sang Gum San, the older brother of the well-known American-Kachin cage fighter, who has notched a record of 17 wins and nine losses.

Aung La N Sang, perhaps better known as “The Burmese Python” in the United States, visited Burma last week to attend a press conference held by Asia’s largest sports promotion, ONE Championship, in Rangoon. The event was held to promote an upcoming MMA event hosted by Burma in March, when Aung La will be on the card, fighting for the first time in his home country.

Originally from Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State, Aung La’s family lived in Rangoon for several years before moving to the United States over a period from 1997 to 2002.

Gum San describes his younger brother as enjoying a reserved and rural lifestyle, choosing to work on a dairy farm milking cows during college, and later taking a job on a bee farm as his first out of college. His life’s dream used to be returning to Kachin State to start a dairy farm of his own, an aspiration that, at least for the time being, has been put on hold.

None of his family members thought that 30-year-old Aung La would one day become a prominent cage fighter, and Gum San said his mother is not particularly pleased with his brother’s MMA foray, with its inherent link to violence.

“Unlike conventional boxing or wrestling, MMA is an extremely brutal sport, where one has a high chance of exiting the cage with broken bones or cuts on the face,” said Gum San.

“There were many instances of Aung La coming home with broken bones or torn muscles from his gym practices. It is hard to see one’s own child getting beaten up or knocked down in a cage,” he added.

Living in Elkridge, Maryland, Aung La began MMA training in 2004. He studied agricultural science at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan.

Thousands of miles away, at a press conference at the swank Kandawgyi Palace Hotel in Rangoon last week, Aung La found himself, perhaps inevitably, drawn into Burma’s fraught political arena. He told reporters that he was not happy with ongoing fighting in Kachin State, which last year uprooted hundreds of villagers, on top of a population numbering more than 100,000 of civilians who have been displaced since 2011.

“I’m very sad. I came here not for political reasons, but I’m not happy. I will try my best to help [those affected by the conflict],” Aung La N Sang told reporters at the event.

On his personal website, Aung La wrote that he hopes to open a school in his hometown, Myitkyina, one day.

“My goals, in my MMA career is to be the ONE Championship’s champion, and one day open a school back home in Myitkyina, Myanmar,” he wrote.

Gum San said he hoped Aung La’s popularity both in United States and Burma would bring positive changes for the people of the latter country, and especially the ethnic minorities who have lived with decades of civil war and repression. The resulting mistrust that long-running conflict has sown is one issue that his brother hopes Aung La can help break down.

Gum San said national reconciliation, a sense of national pride, and greater unity among the country’s people were all areas where his brother could be an asset.

“Aung La’s life represents the aspiration of millions of young people of our nation. I hope his popularity will shed light on the continued suffering of Kachin people due to civil war in Kachin State and northern Shan State,” said Gum San.

“I hope Aung La’s career will pave way for enhanced inter-ethnic relations for citizens of the Union and energize people to rebuild the Union,” he added.

Fighting between the Burma Army and ethnic Kachin rebels of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), one of the country’s largest ethnic armed groups, was renewed in June 2011, after a 17-year ceasefire between the two sides broke down. On-and-off fighting continues in Kachin State, including occasional airstrikes by the government army.

“We are fighting a war because authority chooses military means to resolve political issues,” said Gum San.

For the downtrodden in Burma, Gum San said his brother could serve as an inspiration.

“I feel proud that we ethnic people and the Burmese people, in general, have the capacity to succeed and contribute to the global community, if granted equal opportunity,” he said, commenting on brother’s success.

“On the same note, I am sad that many talented people and countless people with potential continue to be deprived of the right to pursue their life’s passion.”