Why you should care
Few martial arts have had to endure what kahprek has had to — simply to stay alive.
At 5 am in the northern Myanmar town of Myitkyina, the road is still, a cool mist rising. The faint outline of a motorcycle appears, followed by another. Silently accelerating, they reach the outskirts of the capital of Kachin state and ascend a steep hill. The young men park their bikes, cast off their flip-flops and stretch, mountain views emerging as the sun rises.
Fewer than 20 of them all told, these are the remaining practitioners of kahprek, a martial art form unique to the country’s Kachin ethnic minority. The sport is named after an exploding mountain fruit; according to lead trainer Sharaw Seng Du La, “When someone touches our body, we must explode.”
In contrast to the bloody lethwei — Burmese boxing — with its cheering crowds and cacophonous traditional music, during the nine-minute, three-round kahprek matches, the air is tense. The only sounds are the crisp rustle of black cotton pants, occasional slap of hand to arm and sharp draw of breath when a swift strike is delivered. Kicks and punches are relegated to the torso, a strike earning two points, a knockout ending a match.
Established in 1976, kahprek attracted tens of thousands of followers across the state. Seng Du La, 42, estimates he alone has trained some 5,000 youth. But the long-running civil war between the Myanmar military and Kachin Independence Army — which seeks political autonomy for ethnic Kachin from the central government — meant the military viewed the martial art with suspicion. Close monitoring by intelligence and then a total ban from 2011 to 2017 led to a dramatic decline in numbers.
I want to prevent it from disappearing.
Ndup Bumtsaw Naw, 16-year-old kahprek practitioner
Today’s practitioners are fiercely fighting the odds to keep kahprek alive. They’re counting on legends, present Kachin icons and camaraderie to inspire a new generation. Trainers like Seng Du La — who also works in a jade mine — are juggling families and professional responsibilities while teaching young practitioners. And they’re maintaining a distance from the KIA. Assisting or promoting nonstate armed groups like the KIA can mean a prison sentence of up to three years.
“Kahprek is only fitness training,” says Lazing La Htoi, the 65-year-old founder of the martial art. He claims no responsibility for trainees who joined the KIA in the past. “Where [trainees] go doesn’t relate to me.”
(Credit: Maran Myu Awng Li)
That’s not how Myanmar’s military regime viewed the sport. Undercover intelligence joined kahprek training, says Lazing La Htoi, though he didn’t know it at the time, “When we met again, they greeted me: ‘Sir, don’t you remember us? We are from the military,’” he recalls. In 2003, he and two other trainers were detained, questioned and released without charge. “They thought kahprek was a kind of underground movement,” he says. The incident led him to hand over his role as lead trainer; he has kept a low profile since.
Despite these setbacks, kahprek training continued until 2011, when a 17-year cease-fire collapsed between the KIA and Myanmar military. Kahprek was banned — just as authoritarian regimes, from the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia to the British in India, did with local martial arts they feared could emerge as symbols of resistance. “The government might have thought we were trying to revolt,” says Seng Du La.
During the ban, kahprek all but vanished, a few practicing alone or at each other’s homes. The ban was lifted in 2017 by the current government effectively led by Aung San Suu Kyi. Though kahprek has struggled to regain its numbers, those who remain make up for their scarcity with dedication and grit.
They have role models too. Like many Kachin youth, Ndup Bumtsaw Naw, 16, dreams of following in the footsteps of international MMA fighter and Kachin sensation Aung La Nsang. “From kahprek, I feel more comfortable to initiate friendship,” says the shy but cheerful Bumtsaw Naw. “The trainers encourage us to be humble, sociable and to respect others.”
Bum Tsawnaw lives in a camp for those displaced by conflict. To reach training, he cycles 10 miles, returning along unlit roads. He says he is motivated by legends of kahprek masters who, it is said, could lift logs with the strength of five men and slice bamboo with an open palm.
While these characters may be larger-than-life, a real-life legend is kahprek’s first female practitioner, La Awn Seng Raw. When she joined in 1985, alongside 97 males, her parents banished her to sleeping outside their home. For conditioning, Seng Raw ran barefoot around her neighborhood before dawn and did push-ups on gravel, enduring biting red ants and furtive glances from fellow trainees, which she preempted by calling out, “‘Hey, you! Never say any loving words to me!’” She drove the message home when knocking out a male opponent with one kick.
Kahprek has five belt levels, upgrades attained through a grueling three-day exam. Seng Raw earned her green (third level) belt doing 200 push-ups and countless sit-ups that left her back covered in blisters. “My mentality was like that. I have an athlete’s mind; I never give up,” she says. For the highest level, red, the exam includes 500 clapping push-ups, 500 jumping squats and 3,000 sit-ups, as well as a nine-minute, three-round match, scored by a number of strikes to the torso. To date, seven people have earned a red belt, and Seng Du La is the only one since 2000.
Even with the ban lifted, joining the martial art is challenging for some. Shinggawn Myu Htoi, 23, began training in 2017 against the wishes of his parents, who feared kahprek would make him aggressive. Myu Htoi concluded that “kahprek makes me more ambitious; I have more of a dream.”
Seng Du La worries that, with a generation of trainees lost to the ban, kahprek will die out. Nonetheless, today’s trainees present a glimmer of hope for the sport’s continuation — a responsibility that is not lost on them. “Kahprek is part of [Kachin] cultural heritage,” says Bum Tsawnaw. “I want to prevent it from disappearing; I want to train the next generation.”