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Did Leeds United do their homework before deciding to tour Myanmar?

This could be a disaster if not approached right.

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Since 2015, Ian Vásquez and Tanja Porčnik annually publish the Human Freedom Index, a report that presents the state of human freedom around the world based on different measures. The report is co-published by the Cato Institute, the Fraser Institute, and the Liberales Institut at the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom. The index is, as said on its cover, a global measurement of personal, civil, and economic freedom.

It’s important to note that while the HFI is published for, in this case, 2017, the index uses data from 2015, as it’s the most recent year for which sufficient data is available. It covers 159 countries from a scale of 0-10, where 10 represents more freedom. For example, the USA has a score of 8.39, England has a score of 8.55.

So someone explain to me why are Leeds United touring Myanmar, a country whose rating is a 5.47, a country who is ranked 144 out of the 159 countries. Myanmar, which readers may also know as Burma, is sandwiched between Gabon and Cameroon, in case anyone is curious.

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Theres a lot to dissect here, so let’s start with the original announcement

On 24th April Leeds United announced that they were to embark on a post-season tour in Myanmar, the AYA Bank Tour 2018. They are to play two games during their time in Myanmar; against the Myanmar National League (MNL) all-stars and against the Myanmar National team. In addition to the matches, Leeds will be doing clinics with the Myanmar Football Academies, as well as making a point to visit the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, and the Maha Myat Muni Pagoda in Mandalay. Managing Director Angus Kinnear and General Secretary of the Myanmar Football Federation U Ko Ko Thein were quoted:

AK: “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. 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.”

“From a football perspective we welcome the opportunity for our players who have not featured much in the past six months due to injuries the chance to continue their rehabilitation. The squad are very excited for the chance to represent the Club in Asia.”

UK: “We are very pleased to welcome an English club with the history and heritage of Leeds United. The football infrastructure in Myanmar continues to improve and develop, and this is an important milestone on our journey”

”Myanmar is a football-mad country and this tour will help us to showcase our passion for the game at and abroad. I’d like to thank the sponsors of the tour AYA Bank, and of course Leeds United for coming to play here. We wish them very well for the future.”

Oh, Mr Kinnear.

Sure, the tour gives you an opportunity to meet new fans, yada yada yada. Sure, this will be an opportunity to get some of our injured guys a run out. We had some big names out a long time; our season would be different if they were playing. I bet that Myanmar is a football-mad country, like Mr. Thein says they are. But lets look at the numbers, shall we?

“Myanmar is one of the fastest growing nations in South East Asia”

According to World Population Review, that’s just not the case. Going through each individual country’s historical population by year since 2015, Myanmar only has risen by 2.75 percent total. Timor-Leste (also known as East Timor) has the highest total growth rate change, at 6.55 percent.

In terms of total population, Myanmar is behind Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, and Thailand. Thailand is the only country below Myanmar on growth rate percentage. If you look solely at the numbers — disregard any politics, geography, any other detail -- the Philippines have both a large population and a high growth rate change. Not Myanmar. Did the club accidentally confuse Myanmar with the Philippines?

It’s not like Kinnear said something along the lines of “look, Myanmar is a country that has a rabid football following, our goal is to grow the Leeds family in the South-East Asian region.”


Myanmar is one of the fastest growing nations in South East Asia”.

It simply isn’t. That’s just plain wrong, Angus. If a 20-year-old junior college kid can find that out, I’m certain you can, too.

Oh, one more little nugget of info.

It also strikes me kinda odd that the club want to focus on grassroots football in other countries, yet England’s grassroots game is getting decimated with TV deals that benefit only the best of the best. In 2014 Greg Dyke, who was then the chairman of the FA, claimed that the grassroots game in England was in crisis. “If you go to Germany or Holland we are miles behind in terms of facilities and the number of coaches,” said Dyke, who was speaking to BBC. Maybe instead of developing the game somewhere else, do something on home soil?

Another thing, Leeds United announced this whole thing with a lot of excitement, as if the season went just as we wished. As if Leeds United rode the win streak we had behind Thomas Christiansen into promotion. As if Leeds didn’t have more than one season-killing losing streak. As if Leeds United didn’t have to sack another coach. Stoke City canceled their end-of-the-year party because they’re fighting relegation. Canceled because their season didn’t go how they wanted to, and it isn’t worth celebrating about. The only way I could see Leeds celebrating finishing 12th (if the season ended today) is because we didn’t finish any lower. To me, it seems like Leeds are trying their best to hide the disaster of a season this was by doing PR things like a team that is about to be promoted, without addressing how bad of a season this was.

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But that’s just a portion of the problem here.

Maybe you’ve heard about what’s going on in Myanmar. Truthfully, if you haven’t, your sanity is thanking you for it. Myanmar is home to the Rohingya people, who are considered to be the most persecuted minority in the world. The Rohingya are an ethnic group who have lived in Myanmar since as early as the 12th century. Currently, there’s about 1.1 million living there. Nearly all of them live in the western coastal state of Rakhine.

Rohingya Muslims Trapped In Limbo At Bangladesh's Refugee Camps Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images

After gaining independence 1948, Myanmar -then called Burma-refused to give citizenship to the majority of Rohingya that lived in the region. Things only got tougher in 1982, when the Burma Citizenship Act was passed. The act granted citizenship to individuals residing in Burma who could prove that their family had been living there prior to 1823. However, the law purposefully exclued the Rohingya, since many lacked the paperwork to prove they lived in Burma as it was either unavailable or denied to them. As a result, the rights to study, work, travel, marry, religion, and health services were restricted.

How the Rohingya people are being persecuted is terrifyingly grim, but it needs to be said. Crackdowns against the Rohingya have been happening in Rakhine since the 1970s. Acts of rape, torture, arson, murder, all done by Myanmarese security forces have been often reported by the refugees fleeing the country. In more modern times, Myanmar has been accused of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya multiple times. In 2013, an HRW report said Myanmar was conducting an ethnic cleansing campaign, a sentiment shared three years later by a UN official. Last August, a report came out on the nearly 50,000 people that had to flee Rakhine because of arson attacks by Rakhine civilians being helped by Myanmar military and Border Guard Police. There is evidence of the Myanmar government razing at least 55 villages that were once populated by the Rohingya, and with their destruction goes away any evidence of crimes against the the ethnic group. In February 2018, the Associated Press released a video showing at least five undisclosed mass graves of Rohingya people. This is two months ago, in case you didn’t get it the first time. The HRW believe that a total of 362 villages in total have been destroyed by Myanmar’s military since August of last year.

What’s causing the Myanmar military to do all that? Most modernly, the government is pointing its finger at the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). Formerly known as the al-Yaqeen Faith Movement, ARSA feels obligated to “defend, salvage, and protect [the] Rohingya community.” The group is considered a terrorist organization by the Myanmar government.

From the outside looking in, it’s tough. ARSA has claimed responsibility for an attack on police posts and trying to break into an army base. But in its March statement, the same one where they changed their name, ARSA said that its defensive attacks have only been aimed at the “oppressive Burmese regime in accordance with international norms and principles until our demands are fulfilled.” To the Myanmar government, this is terrorism, and just another reason for them to go after the Rohingya.

Regardless of what side you fall on, this is a visible chaos that should, at the very least, be addressed by the leader of the country where it’s been happening, no?

Again, nah.

Aung San Suu Kyi, who is the State Chancellor and de facto leader of Myanmar, doesn’t seem to care about the Rohingya. Suu Kyi, who won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 “for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights” does her best to refuse to talk about the flight of the Rohingya. Again, these people are terrorists in her eyes. Suu Kyi does not have control over her military, but has been criticized for her failure to condemn the indiscriminate use of force by troops, as well as not standing up for the Rohingya in her country. Her government has repeatedly rejected accusations of abuses. In February 2017, the UN published a report that found that the government troops “very likely” committed crimes against humanity since renewed military crackdowns began in October 2016. In response, the government didn’t directly address the findings of the report, saying that the investigating allegations would only aggravate troubles in the Rakhine state, and that they had “the right to defend the country by lawful means against terrorist activities”, adding that a domestic investigation was enough. Suu Kyi entrusted former UN chief Kofi Annan to find a way to heal the divisions in the region, and said that her government would welcome the commissions recommendations.

However, her appointment was met with scrutiny, as some argued that it was just a way for Suu Ki to try to pacify global public opinion and a way to try and demonstrate that she is doing what she can to resolve the issue. After 270,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh in two weeks to escape the violence in Myanmar, Suu Kyi blamed a “huge iceberg of misinformation” on the crisis, without mentioning the Rohingya that fled. When Pope Francis visited to Myanmar in November 2017, Myanmar’s army chief General Min Aung Hlaing told him that there was no discrimination in Myanmar, while also praising his military for maintaining peace and stability in the country.

With all that, even though it’s in a different part of the country then where the tour will take place, it really makes you wonder why Leeds United would willingly play football in Myanmar. Why Leeds United would willingly support a country like this.

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2018 just hasn’t been the one for Leeds United. The losing streak, the badge, now (for some reason) this tour. Leeds have definitely caught some heat for the move. Director of Amnesty International UK, Kate Allen, had this to say:

KA: “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 Rohingya 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.

“We’re not going to tell Leeds United where they should and shouldn’t visit, but if the tour does go ahead, the club should use its leverage to call for an end to the crackdown and raise with the Burmese authorities the plight of the hundreds of thousands of families who have been brutalised and forced to flee their homes.”

Andrea Radrizzani took to twitter to try and clear up some things, too...:

...and I don’t think he helped himself at all.

Firstly, no politics in football? I’m going to hope that there’s some translation issue, because there is most definitely politics in football. Just some examples: Spanish Dictator Francisco Franco’s ties to Real Madrid, Basher al-Assad and the Syrian National Team, the FIFA corruption scandal(s), the Old Firm and sectarianism in Scotland, and the list goes on. There most definitely is politics in football. Secondly, what is this medium-long term project? Radrizzani seems to make it clear that Leeds are going to be dancing with Myanmar for some time. That’s not going to be good if the situation in Myanmar gets worse and worse without the team making some kind of statement.

I agree with what Kate Allen is saying. If Leeds do go to Myanmar, they should use their position of influence to raise concern for the Rohingya. At least, it would be wise of them to do so. If Leeds do end up going, the higher-ups in the club will come under tremendous scrutiny. There’s going to be journalists asking hard-hitting questions at Leeds, so the Whites should take the chance to distance themselves from the regime if/when given. Aligning themselves with Myanmar could prove toxic very quickly.

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To bring this full circle, it may come off odd, but I don’t mind Leeds United going to South-East Asia. I imagine that Radrizzani, Kinnear, all the suits at Leeds mean well, too. Developing the beautiful game in a developing country is a beautiful motive. One that will cement your legacy in the best of ways if it’s pulled off correctly. But Myanmar? Currently? I struggle to see how anyone in the clubhouse could have even thought of the idea if they even did minimal research into the country. Bangladesh’s National Commission for Human Rights is considering pressing for a trial against Myanmar and against the Myanmar army. The Myanmar government is risking getting bracketed with the likes of North Korea and Syria if they do not allow the UN to investigate the crimes. Myanmar is literally the worst country in the South-East Asian region in terms of freedom according to the Human Freedom Index.

Is this really the country you want to be doing business in?