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Leeds United’s Burma football tour causes stir over ethics, optics

Organisers of the AYA Bank Tour 2018 hold a press conference in Yangon on Tuesday. (Photo: DVB)

The English football club Leeds United may be kicking itself this week after its boisterous announcement that it will be bringing the squad to Burma next month was met with widespread condemnation.

The team, which plays in the country’s second-tier English Football League Championship, announced on Tuesday that it would take on a Myanmar National League all-star team and Burma’s national squad at venues in Yangon and Mandalay on 9 and 11 May.

The “AYA Bank Tour 2018” friendly matches came in for criticism on social media and scrutiny by the British press shortly after it was revealed, however, as some assailed the club for bringing its players to a Burma that is increasingly isolated on the world stage amid ongoing conflicts in the country’s north and west.

The backlash has been concentrated on the situation in Rakhine State, where a top UN human rights official has described the military’s counterinsurgency campaign in the wake of Rohingya Muslim militant attacks last year as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

“Myanmar is one of the fastest growing nations in South East Asia and is passionate about English football. They have ambitious goals for grassroots and elite football development that we are delighted to be able to support,” Leeds United’s Managing Director Angus Kinnear said in statement. “This tour gives us an opportunity to meet new fans of football who will hopefully support our journey back to the Premier League in the coming years.”

The marketing-oriented statement made no mention of the ongoing turmoil affecting Burma’s west and neighbouring Bangladesh, and critics were quick to pounce.

“This is wholly inappropriate and will be a stain on the history of @LUFC,” wrote one Twitter user, tagging Leeds United’s official account on the social media platform. “The club will be giving the genocidal #Myanmar state tacit support and the trip will be remembered as such. Fans and players need to step up and put a stop to this now, before it’s too late. #Rohingya”

Burma has strongly pushed back against allegations of ethnic cleansing and the more serious “genocide” characterisation.

“There is no ethnic cleansing. There is no genocide,” Hau Do Suan, permanent representative of Burma to the United Nations, told the world body last year. “The leaders of Myanmar, who have long been striving for freedom and human rights, will not espouse such policies. We will do everything to prevent ethnic cleansing and genocide.”

A tweet from Leeds United on Tuesday announcing the tour drew more than 450 comments, offering a wide spectrum of opinions on the matter. Some hammered home on the ethics of the sporting partnership, while others focused on the only partially accurate notion that Burma is a country that the UK’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office advises against travelling within.

One of the more cheeky Twitter exchanges centred on one fan’s apparent interest in flying the nearly 9,000 kilometres to see the matches.

“What is skyscanner saying on price?” wrote the user, referring to the popular airfare aggregation website.

“it’s saying ‘don’t go’” replied another.

In a follow-up tweet to its announcement, Leeds United wrote: “More information on travelling to Myanmar will be released shortly and we advise supporters to wait for further advice.”

Responding to the backlash, club owner Andrea Radrizzani wrote an open letter on Wednesday defending the decision to come to Burma, saying he had travelled to the country several times and that it is “somewhere very close to my heart.”

In addition to the two matches the club will play next month, it will be holding football clinics for children at sporting academies in Yangon and Mandalay.

Radrizzani added, “I believe the tour will have a positive impact on the local community in parts of the country we intend to visit. This was a carefully considered decision and we knew it would be controversial, but this is about people not governments.”

But Mark Farmaner, director of the London-based advocacy group Burma Campaign UK, said the club had misjudged the optics of its Burma tour.

“There has been no call for a cultural or sports boycott of Burma, but clearly Leeds United haven’t clearly thought through how a visit to Burma at this time would be perceived,” he told DVB.

“The fact that so many Leeds United fans are outraged by the decision to play in Burma shows just how much damage has been done to Burma’s international reputation by the human rights violations committed against the Rohingya. These are just ordinary members of the public, they are not following events in Burma closely, but they know enough to be against this tour going ahead.”

Farmaner added that Burma Campaign UK’s main concern was that the tour is sponsored by AYA Bank, a lender owned by Burmese tycoon Zaw Zaw, who “appears to be involved in the government’s so-called development programme in Rakhine State where the villages of Rohingya forced to flee ethnic cleansing are now being built over.”

Radrizzani has insisted that the simmering controversy could ultimately prove beneficial.

“It has never been my intention, nor that of the club, to get involved in a political debate in Myanmar,” he wrote in Wednesday’s letter. “However, if because of the tour we further highlight the ongoing serious issues in certain areas of the country, then maybe that is a positive thing.”