Leeds United’s owner Andrea Radrizzani wrote an open letter to address concerns that supporters have had with the club’s announcement of a tour in Myanmar. But he failed to properly address those concerns and instead opened a bigger can of worms instead. At best, Radrizzani comes off as insensitive. At worst, he comes off as complicit towards a regime which has been accused of various international crimes.
The political situation in Myanmar is not good, and has not been good for decades. Even after the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, which was hoped to bring peace to the country after decades of brutal repression, the county has still continued to be plagued by violence against the Rohingya people, a primarily Muslim minority ethnic group. The violence has created a refugee crisis and has resulted in a great deal of destruction aimed at Rohingya people.
Incredibly disappointed to read @AndreaRadri’s open letter on @LUFC's post-season trip to Myanmar - it's mis-informed and manages to ignore the suffering of almost 1 million Rohingya refugees.@AndreaRadri, I want to speak to you, please follow me and I’ll DM you my number https://t.co/G8eS7HjCcC— Dr Rosena Allin-Khan (@DrRosena) April 25, 2018
However, rather than address the serious concerns that people, from both inside the UK government and from international agencies, Radrizzani paid lip service to the crisis while stating that he wants to “bring people together,” saying:
I have spent over 10 years living in Asia and Myanmar is a country I have visited on many occasions. I am aware of the serious issues within the country, but I also know that it is a beautiful place filled with incredibly warm and welcoming people. It is somewhere very close to my heart.
I also want to be clear that I am active in the Southeast Asia region with ongoing business practices that provide jobs and help to develop the local sports and media sectors. I have similar goals for Myanmar, along with many other British businesses that trade with and operate in the country presently.
Football is extremely popular in Myanmar and I believe the game we all love has the power to help developing nations by bringing people together, especially young people. That is why I wanted to take the team on a post-season tour to play matches and run coaching clinics with children from the area.
Referring to the crisis involving the oppression of a minority that has included accusations of “ethnic cleansing” from the international community as “serious issues” seems a bit patronizing and saying that Myanmar is “a beautiful place filled with... welcoming people” just smacks of trying to down-play the seriousness of the crimes that the government has been accused of committing.
Where Radrizzani comes off as complicit, rather than just insensitive or naive, is when he claims that Leeds are not going to be receiving a fee for touring in Myanmar.
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. This was a carefully considered decision and we knew it would be controversial, but this is about people not governments.
It has never been my intention, nor that of the club, to get involved in a political debate in Myanmar. 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.
If Leeds aren’t getting paid to be there, then what, exactly, is the point of all of this? Radrizzani mentioned that he does business, as the head of Eleven Sports, in Southeast Asia and Myanmar more specifically. Is he mixing the club up in a deal of his?
He also repeats the line about how Myanmar is “the fastest growing country in Southeast Asia,” something that is patently false, as Myanmar is in fact one of the slowest growing countries in SE Asia.
And saying that “this is about people, not governments” again clouds the issues. The issue with the government is the violence against the Rohingya people and their displacement. Are the Rohingya not people?
He also throws in a quote about supporting a grassroots organization in Nepal, saying “I support via Play For Change, a local NGO in Nepal, in providing sports and educational activities to over 4000 underprivileged children.” But Nepal isn’t Myanmar and that doesn’t help the Rohingya people that have been displaced or worse by the military in Myanmar. And bringing up Nepal in this situation is worthless, because saying that you’re helping to provide education to underprivileged children doesn’t really address the issues in Myanmar. The Rohingya people aren’t “underprivileged.” They’re being driven from their homes under threat of state-sponsored violence, not just living in a low-income neighbourhood or region.
There is a line from the song Freewill by the band Rush that I think is extremely appropriate. “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” By claiming to not be involved with the politics of going to Myanmar, Radrizzani has still made a choice. He is choosing to take Leeds United to Myanmar and risk associating the Leeds United brand and identity with the violence against a minority group, no matter the claims of “spreading Leeds United values” or football being for the people. This is a mistake, and rather than address the issues brought up by Amnesty International or the shadow sports minister, Radrizzni has dug himself a deeper hole.