The Myanmar Football Federation (MFF) confirmed that Leeds United Football Club, a professional association football club in Leeds, West Yorkshire, England, is surely playing friendly matches against Myanmar without any changes in its original plan in spite of facing political criticism from Bengali organizations across the world.
Leeds United with its nickname “the whites” is a former renowned club in England, producing a number of brilliant footballers in English Premier League and is currently taking part in League Championship. Leeds held a press conference at Novotel Hotel in Yangon on April 24, announcing in its Twitter that it will play two friendly matches against Myanmar national team and MNL All-Star XI in Yangon and Mandalay on May 9 and 11.
Following the official announcement of Leeds United, Kate Allen, Director of Amnesty International (UK) said, "It certainly seems like an odd choice of country to choose to tour,"
"The last year has seen the human rights situation in Myanmar deteriorate dramatically.
"Hundreds of thousands of Bengalis have fled crimes against humanity in Rakhine State to neighbouring Bangladesh; those who remain continue to live under a system amounting to apartheid.
"The Myanmar authorities have continued the brutal crackdown despite a global outcry.
"Far too often sporting events have been used as a cheap PR tool to 'sportswash' the stain of a country's human rights record."
UK Shadow Sports Minister Rosena Allin-Khan condemned the tour in a letter to the club's chairman, Andrea Radrizzani.
Allin-Khan, who represents the London borough of Tooting, says she recently visited Bengali refugee camps in Bangladesh and heard eyewitness accounts of massacres of the Muslim minority by Myanmar government troops.
"On my visits to the camps in November, I spoke to a village Imam who described, in heartbreaking detail, how he witnessed all the men from his village of 3,000 people in Myanmar being slaughtered and dismembered, the women being raped, and babies and young children being thrown, alive, onto burning fires."
In a tweet highlighting her letter to Radrizzani, she wrote: "No UK club or organization should promote a country which carries out state sponsored mass murder. They must rethink it, history will judge them to be on the wrong side of this."
Leeds United fans and Bengali activist orgnisations in Britain have issued statements in opposition to the tour. Critical comments are being posted on the Twitter page of Leeds United. International news agencies such as CNN, BBC, The Guardian, Sky, Daily Mail, The Independent, The Times, Telegraph, Al Jazeera and ITV are publishing critical reports.
As regards the friendly match with Leeds United, an MFF official responded: “As originally scheduled, we are preparing for the friendly match with Leeds United. When the team arrives here, we, as a host, will be arranging all necessary things. We are trying our utmost efforts to ensure the best tour of the friendly match.”
In response to critical comments, Leeds United owner Andrea Radrizzani told AFP that his club is going to play with the Myanmar team in order to help promote the country’s football standard. He said: “The club is not receiving any fee to play. Rather I see this both as a personal initiative to support local football and a way to introduce the name of Leeds United in the fastest growing country in Southeast Asia. I believe the tour will have a positive impact on the local community in parts of the country we intend to visit.”
Football fans from Myanmar welcomed the tour and have arranged to support them overwhelmingly in Yangon and Mandalay if the matches are played. “They should not criticize the sports under pretext of political issue as powerful countries in football are trying to prevent discriminations based on skin color and race. Country like Briton is doing it on Myanmar on purposes. The English team is known by football fans from Myanmar. Although I have arranged to support them at first, now I will definitely go to support them amidst the criticism. I will urge my friends in Yangon and Mandalay to support them. We want to show the world by the stadium-packed with fans that politics and sports are not related in Myanmar,” said Ko Zeya, a football fan lives in Yankin Township.
Moreover about 200 fans of Leeds United are planned to visit Myanmar to support their team and the MFF will arrange security and accommodation for them. “We have been told by officials from Leeds United that about 200 of their fans will come here to support the team. We will arrange for accommodation as well as security for them,” said an official from the MFF.
According to veteran sports writer Hein Thant, “Myanmar national team will definitely gain the experience from the opportunity to play against such a team from England, especially a team very well-known. Their tactics and training regimes differ from us so whether we win or lose, it is great that we will all learn. We’ve seen the news nothing to do with football. It is terrible and disappointed. According to FIFA rules, there is no politics and racial divide in football arena. We are now seeing and reading one-sided news without mentioning the sports. It will be the best if we witness politics and sports differently.
In the past, two countries that have had tense relationship with one another had played against each other in sports; recalling the time when the US and Iran football teams were part of the same division in 1998 World Cup where Iran triumphed over the US 2-1. For a more recent example, one only needs to look at the Winter Olympics 2018 in February when South and North Korea, both countries near the brink of war, attended the Opening Ceremony under a unified banner of “Korea”.
Even under the rule of military dictatorship, Myanmar was never imposed with any sorts of restriction and sanctions when it comes to sports. There are strong opposition towards oppressive political pressure asserted on Myanmar by western media organizations especially UK based ones, and they had put the affairs of Bengali to the forefront with the aim of isolating Myanmar even in sports sector despite lack of historical precedence.
There are also strong criticisms from Myanmar citizens and football fans alike that it is an extremely petty move to forcibly link sports and politics in order to put international pressure on Myanmar. Amidst the storm attacks on Leeds United’s trip to Myanmar, local football fans are ready to wholeheartedly support the friendly matches.
Translated by WH+ST+AKK+PC