Cambodia is a beautiful and culturally rich nation, which unfortunately, is also known in the outside world for its troubled history. War and hardship have plagued the country, and though there is relative peace now, the effects are still fresh in the hearts and minds of the citizens.
There is a new generation that was touched by strife, but are keen to put Cambodia back on the map for the right reasons — to show that the people have overcome their past, and as a nation, have plenty to offer.
Chan Rothana was born in a refugee camp on the Thai border during the civil war, and through martial arts, he is slowly proving people can achieve great things, even if their start in life was not perfect.
To say it was not perfect is a euphemism of epic proportions, with family members killed in the genocide, homelessness, and abject poverty. However, when they were able to return to Cambodia in 1992, Rothana instantly knew he was home.
“I realized the beauty of my culture and the horror of the civil war,” the 31-year-old explains. “Now our country is changing, war is in the past, and I want to show that Cambodia is [once again] a great country like it was.”
Education was not a privilege he could take full advantage of. He came from a large family with 17 other siblings and he needed to help them survive, so his schooling was cut short in favor of an education in combat. After all, fighting was in his blood.
Rothana’s father is one of just two living grand masters in the Khmer martial art of Yutakhun Khom. At first, it was just a means of paying the bills, but now he also sees it as a way of projecting pride in his culture, and helping to bring prestige to his family, his art, and his nation.
“There are two main reasons why I fight,” he begins. “First, I do it to support my family and be able to afford what I did not have when I was young. Secondly, it is to promote Cambodia and our Khmer martial art – the one my father taught me – Yutakhun Khom.”
Having competed in Kun Khmer since he was 16, he easily racked up over a hundred fights to his credit. By 2014, he was starting to set his eyes on retirement so he could focus on coaching the next generation.
ONE Championship played a part in his competitive revival, however. Rothana was a fan of the Asian mixed martial arts promotion, and saw it as a great opportunity to display his art on a global platform.
After making a successful debut at a local show in Cambodia, he was able to sign with the MMA giant, where he has been fighting ever since.
“MMA is a great sport, and ONE Championship a great organization that changed my life conditions, but it is not an easy road,” Rothana says.
Not only is he fighting on the world’s biggest stage, but he is also giving back to the community. Through his team, SELAPAK, and FightForCambodia.org, Rothana is using his own prowess to raise awareness and better help youngsters of the next generation.
“We identify young fighters with high potential and support them, because they generally come from poor backgrounds,” the Phnom Penh native offers, describing the initiative which delivers, amongst other things, free training, equipment, medical support, English lessons, and funding for Cambodian youths.
Rothana has used the martial arts to improve his own personal situation in life, but now he is also using it to help other young people in his country to do the same. By staying true to his mission and sharing his art, he is undoubtedly doing his part for the country’s steady revival.