Master Sarun Chea's Story
Master Sarun Chea is a traditional Bradahl Serey (Khmer Kickboxing) trainer with more than thirty years combined experience in competing, teaching and promoting. He has been teaching students in Australia for seventeen years and has attracted a loyal following of students, fight-fans and industry contacts.
Rahu Promotions is the brain-child or Master Sarun's desire to revive traditional ideals in modern kickboxing. His aim is to nurture good sportsmanship in fighters and fans by promoting fighters who display discipline and respect both inside and outside of the ring. Combined with traditional entertainment and the presence or important community leaders this will serve to make Australian kickboxing a sport open and welcome to the mainstream, as it is in Asia.
Master Sarun is also aiming to use Rahu Promotions to showcase the very similar cultures of Cambodia, Thailand and Laos by displaying high-class athletes from those three countries, and emphasizing the origins of the sport. He seeks to educate both the Australian community, who have demonstrated a strong interest in the traditional practice and customers of Asian kickboxing, and also to instill a much needed sense of pride in the young Australian-born children of Cambodia, Thailand and Laos.
The lotus flower is revered in Buddhist iconography as a symbol of the Soul’s journey through life. The lotus begins life at the bottom of a stagnant pool, covered in mud, carrion and waste, but persistently rises to the surface, the delicate flower bud protected from the filthy waters, until it blooms, pure and uncorrupted, in the sunlight. Finally, the flower is taken to the temple as an offering to the Gods. Master Sarun Chea’s life can be compared to the life of the lotus flower, a journey from darkness, obscurity and worthlessness to power, leadership and integrity, undertaken not once but three times. His journey began in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Born into a respected middle-class family who maintained traditional ethics and culture within the village, he enjoyed many opportunities for formal education. However, his childhood dream was not to follow his grandparents or uncles into military, scholarly or medical careers, but to follow his great-grandfather – who had fled Cambodia to escape French colonial persecution - and become a traditional Bradahl Serey fighter and master.
Bradahl Serey is the traditional fighting style of Cambodia, which has parallels in Thailand, Laos and Burma. While today it is enjoyed around the world under its Thai name, Muay Thai, as a ring-sport, it has its roots in the ancient Boran style, which developed for use in war and survival in both armed and unarmed combat. Inspired by the legacy of his great-grandfather, as well as A-grade Cambodian fighters such as Chea Sarack and Chet Serem, Master Sarun began his training under Grandmaster Sam Yut, who had been educated by a former royal bodyguard. As well as being a highly-respected Serey and Boran teacher, Grandmaster Sam Yut was an advisor on language, literature and Buddhist scripture and philosophy. His teaching was sought out not only by fighters but by monks from Cambodia and Thailand. He served the community wider as a practitioner of traditional herbal medicines, as well as a form of therapy to assist in recovery from muscular-skeletal injuries. Initially skeptical about Master Sarun’s intentions, Grandmaster Sam Yut set him a series of tests before accepting him as a true student. After passing these tests, he became privy to teachings not only about Bradahl Serey and Boran, but Grandmaster Sam Yut’s other areas of expertise.
Master Sarun showed a particular aptitude in learning how to overcome muscular-skeletal injuries using his Grandmaster’s methods. In return, the young Master Sarun made a promise that was to change the course of his life and set him in direct opposition with immense military, political and cultural forces. He promised that one day he would have his own Bradahl Serey School, would spread Bradahl Serey throughout the world – educating foreigners while inspiring young Cambodians to preserve their heritage – and that he would transform the status of Cambodian fighters, lifting them from being seen as pimps and bodyguards, to being high-profile international sports stars. Grandmaster Sam Yut just laughed – the promise lost some of its impact spoken by an eight year old child! Master Sarun’s childhood was violently disrupted by the beginning of the Khmer Rouge communist genocide.
Officially inspired by Pol Pot’s ideal of a Cambodia which was free from corruption, capitalism and exploitation, in reality, the cause became a free-for-all killing spree, where everyone but uneducated subsistence farmers was a target. His family were scattered, many killed. Master Sarun, along with many others, was taken to a camp where he was forced to work as many as twenty hours each day with little, if any, food. It was to be a slow death by slavery and starvation. After two years of hard labor, his blood-line, and the status of his family, came to the attention of the Khmer Rouge, and it was decided that he and his remaining family were to be killed. Desperate to save his family, he made the only choice available to him at the time. He enlisted in the Khmer Rouge Special Forces – then considered a suicide mission. He was thirteen years old. His status as a Khmer Rouge Special Forces soldier bought his family immunity, and their lives were saved. The price he paid was to live and fight in the depths of the jungle, with the prospect of death coming from disease, starvation, wild animals, war, American bombs or the Khmer Rouge themselves. The isolation and danger the soldiers faced also gave them a sort of freedom.
Almost all were child soldiers, who had joined for similar reasons to Master Sarun. Far from being a group of men fighting for Khmer Rouge ideology, they were young men, and sometimes women, struggling to buy extra days or hours of life. Hidden in the jungle from the Khmer Rouge leaders, they worked to smuggle refugees fleeing the war out of Cambodia to refugee camps on the Thai border. His original troupe was made up of two hundred soldiers. After a particularly bloody encounter – after which Master Sarun survived by covering himself with the entrails of dead comrades to avoid execution at the hands of the Viet Kong victors – only seven of that two hundred remained.
The Khmer Rouge now considered Master Sarun a traitor, and placed a bounty on his head. Master Sarun discarded his gun and what remained of his uniform and, disguised as a civilian, made the journey to safety in Thailand. Once in the Thai refugee camp, he was reunited with his parents and Grandmaster Sam Yut. He also began training under Master Chomran. For the first time in four years, he had a steady, if meager, supply of food, as well as relative safety. However, his refugee status gave him no legal rights, and he was vulnerable to violence or death in Thailand. Despite this, he managed to become a professional fighter – “escaping” from the camp and fighting in Thailand under a false name which concealed his refugee status – and continued his education, eventually becoming a physical education and Khmer literature teacher.
He taught Bradahl Serey to students within the camp, and worked as a professional trainer for A-grade Thai fighters such as Bert Lerk. Although he led a politically risky life, it was a good life for himself and his young family. Over a period of ten years, he established himself as a well-known and respected athlete, teacher and public figure for both Cambodian and Thai people. Yet despite his personal success and satisfaction, he harbored fears that he would not be able to provide his children with a sufficient education in Thailand. When he was offered a life in Australia, he accepted, believing this was in his children’s best interests, despite the concerns raised by his friends and teachers.
Like many new migrants, Master Sarun experienced intense regret, disappointment and disillusionment upon arrival in his new country. His experience and qualifications were not recognized; his sport didn't’t exist in the west at that time, and – as one of the earlier waves of Asian migrants – he was the subject of racism and discrimination. Overnight, he had gone from a successful athlete, teacher and minor celebrity, to picking carrots for six dollars per hour. He remembered the Khmer Rouge work camps, and wondered if he had made the right choice. True to character, he soon found his feet. He began teaching Bradahl Serey, first within the Cambodian community and then to the wider Australian community. He used his position as a Bradahl Serey Master, as well as his experiences as a soldier, to protect Buddhist monks and teachers from the factions within the Cambodian community who had retained Khmer Rouge ideology and therefore still sought to destroy traditional Cambodian religion, knowledge and culture.
In 1990, he made his teaching more widely available by opening a Bradahl Serey School, where he continues to teach students of all backgrounds about Bradahl Serey, as well as the culture and religion of Cambodia that he promised Grandmaster Sam Yut in 1970 that he would perpetuate. In the face of death, Master Sarun fought to deliver on that promise. Today, he is working towards taking his promise further, delivering Bradahl Serey to an international audience, preserving the true traditions, customs and ethics of this art, and providing viable opportunities for Bradahl Serey and Muay Thai fighters all over the world to receive reward and recognition for their own arduous journeys and personal sacrifices. As the lotus that has reached the sunlight and bloomed is then taken to the temple, Master Sarun believes the time is right for him to take his contribution beyond its origins and share it with the world.