Leeds, United; Myanmar, Divided: Let’s Think Outside the (Penalty) Box

Thomas Dowling suggests a more nuanced approach to Leeds United’s controversial tour in Myanmar. 

It’s been a great season to be a soccer fan: Manchester City have obliterated their opposition in the Premier League, and Spanish clubs are poised for yet more European domination. However, as soccer clubs around the globe wind down prior to the World Cup, it’s Leeds United, a team in England’s second division, that has roused controversy: they are currently engaged in a two match post-season tour in Myanmar (losing their first game to MNL All-Stars 2-1 on Wednesday), a country alleged to have committed a range of humanitarian abuses against its ethnic minorities.  

But is the controversy fair? 

A Human Tsunami

Few media outlets around the world have failed to cover the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar’s Rakhine State over the last two years. Attention has been focused on the extraordinary refugee exodus of an estimated 700,000 people that the scholar and dissident Dr. Maung Zarni called a “human tsunami. 

An equally extraordinary number of allegations accompanied these desperate and predominately Muslim people who found sanctuary in the welcoming arms of Bangladesh, and who often times described to aid groups, journalists, and medical professionals a litany of abuses that ranged from rape and arson, to extrajudicial killings. The Rohingya have been described as the “most persecuted people in the world” by the UN – with good reason. 

Whilst the international media’s attention has been largely focused upon the most recent and brutal plight of the Rohingya since, broadly speaking, the terrorist attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) on October 9th, 2016—six months into the de facto leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi on the back of a landslide victory in the first democratic elections in a generation—it represents only a short period of time that has stretched over half a century of discrimination and xenophobia by Myanmar’s dominant ethnic Buddhist majority, the Bamars. During the last 18 months, however, ‘crimes against humanity’ and ‘genocide’ allegedly committed by Myanmar’s security forces have gained considerable resonance in a land long associated with a broad range of humanitarian abuses. 

Leeds, United; Myanmar, Divided

It is into this context that Leeds United, a popular soccer club which finished mid-table in the UK’s Championship Division, has found itself embroiled in controversy. Two weeks ago, the Club—owned by Andrea Radrizzani, an Italian—announced a two match post-season tour of Myanmar for May (presently underway), unimaginatively dubbed the AYA Bank Tour 2018. Almost immediately, my Twitter feed (which generally focuses upon Myanmar given my PhD research on the country), was alive with dozens of re-tweets relating to the official proclamations of Leeds United, complete with short annotations from Myanmar-based commentators that voiced a mixture of concern and mild outrage in less than 140 characters. Others, journalists in the main, sought out the opinion of the Leeds fans themselves who, as far as I could assess, reacted negatively overall. Shortly afterward, Rohingya refugees who had escaped previous large-scale, army-induced ethnic purges in Myanmar and were now resettled in the UK, urged the Club to reconsider its summer plans. Some commentators went further, calling for the tour to be cancelled with an implied sense of ‘shame on you’. 

While ignorant of Leeds United’s ownership and its financial backing, my first reaction was that the tour was ill-timed, illustrated an obvious lack of contemporary political understanding in Myanmar, and could potentially show the country in a more positive light at a time when serious, credible, widespread humanitarian abuses are alleged to be underway in at least four ethnic states; allegations that are becoming increasingly difficult to dismiss. At the same time, however, I also thought that Leeds United, like all sports teams in the modern world, is a global business and purposefully seeks out new markets and economic ventures. Southeast Asia is a region mad for British soccer, as is Myanmar, yet it is a country barely tapped into. Considering that neighbouring Thai owners funded Leicester City’s astonishing Premier League victory back in the 2015-6 season (who themselves toured Myanmar during the euphoric aftermath of Suu Kyi’s NLD-elected government), Myanmar’s near-absent exploitation seems like an own-goal for capitalism. It should be noted (in the spirit of objectivity), that Radrizzani, in an open letter on the Club’s website, explicitly said that Leeds United “is not receiving any fee to play.” Yet, given the name of the tour, the obvious investment opportunities, and Radrizzani’s previous purchase of TV rights of various leagues around the world, there is more to be made than selling tickets at the gate. It would be naive in the extreme to think that this Myanmar tour was motivated by altruism. If so, presumably there are better, less ‘genocidal’ countries that could benefit from a famous UK soccer club visiting their pitches. 

With all this in mind (at this stage I was mildly concerned, but took no major umbrage with the tour in principle) I read a little more and made some alarming discoveries. The AYA Bank has been implicated in ethnic cleansing in Rakhine State, where the most documented and publicised human rights abuses have been committed. The association is important: several prominent academics, like Saskia Sassen, have connected ethnic displacement with land value and subsequent resource extraction or investments. I am, of course, not privy to AYA Bank’s motivations, nor their intentions. Yet, even a loose association with Rakhine State given the current political climate should have (at least)forced Leeds United to question their dealings with AYA Bank. The results of these explorations on my part altered my initial concerns towards a festering outrage: it seemed to me (at the time), that the name of a grand old soccer club and its fans (by association) had sanctioned continuing ethnic violence. (This was not a reasonable evaluation, upon reflection.) 

Finally, I arrived at a more nuanced perspective. Despite the questionable ethics regarding some of AYA Bank’s investments and its current connections to Leeds United, the minds behind the Club’s global marketing strategies, or the ambitions of its owner, Leeds ‘PLC’ is a business and it would be extremely unfair to condemn its board members for touring in a country at the same time when Unilever, Coke-a-cola, and other big brands have been investing billions since the democratic transition began in 2010. It would be hypocritical to lambast the Club when Japan, South Korea, and Singapore—Western-modelled economies and democracy-embracing countries—are falling over themselves to spend their yen, won, and dollars in grand projects and enterprises while failing to condemn or even question the leadership or governance of the country they are attempting to exploit.  

It is unfair and entirely easy to deride Leeds United’s tour of Myanmar without stopping to question the motives and ethics of other companies and nation-states as well. Rather than simply crying foul-play, the international community should be encouraged to move the goalposts and allow a more nuanced debate about ethics and actors’ interactions with Myanmar to emerge. 

Setting New Goals

The beautiful game, as soccer is so aptly and perfectly described, has so often been a way of bringing communities together, whether they be scruffy lads using sweatshirts as goalposts, global conglomerates like Barcelona selling their blue and maroon in places barely making the cartographer’s footnotes, or the divinely-moulded German demigods of the national team: it’s a game that should unite, not divide. 

So, here is what I propose to the board of Leeds United: set new goals. Bring the communities of Myanmar together and show the world how beautiful the game really is. Continue your tour of Myanmar, where soccer is increasingly popular, and associate with AYA Bank, if you must, but play the Rohingya, too. I’m sure the newly established Rohingya FC—formed of refugees who play their ‘home’games in Malaysia—would play their hearts out not only because they are Rohingya but because they love soccer as much as the rest of us. At the very least, such a game might give the 500,000 displaced Rohingya refugees currently living in the squalid conditions of Kutapalong camp something to cheer about for a change.

Thomas Dowling is a PhD student focused upon environmental security and human rights in Myanmar where he has travelled widely, resided, and writes about regularly for the thedigitaltraveller.com. He is also a lifelong fan of Liverpool FC, and currently lives in Daegu, South Korea, with his wife and rambunctious Jack Russell.