After a failed effort at football diplomacy, Rohingya Football Club founder Muhammad Noor has learned that the only way to end the oppression of his people is to force Myanmar to see that injustice has consequences.
There was a time when Muhammad Noor believed football was the universal language of friendship and harmony. He lived by this belief when he became one of the founders of the Rohingya Football Club (RFC) in 2015, an endeavor that has elevated a ragtag group of refugees to become a legitimate contender in tournaments across Malaysia. Even after Myanmar troops displaced more than 90,000 Rohingya from their villages in Oct. 2016, Noor held out hope that the Myanmar public and the stateless minority could find common ground on the pitch. But that was not to be.
Noor is among the chorus of voices condemning Leeds United owner Andrea Radrizzani, who is bringing the English football club to Myanmar this week with just a thin veil of false idealism to mask his personal interests in the country. Radrizzani claims that the matches Leeds United plays with Myanmar teams on May 9 and 11 will benefit the people of Myanmar by calling attention to the country’s problems. He also owns two companies – Aser and Eleven Sports – that have partnerships in the region and are expected to benefit from the tour.
Like the other critics, Noor says Leeds United’s publicity stunt plays into the government’s shallow ploy for positive coverage while it commits and covers up atrocities against the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities. However, unlike the other critics, Noor has personally been down this road before, and it forever altered his belief in the conciliatory power of sport, at least when Myanmar is involved.
Genocide beyond borders
In Jan. 2017, Noor proposed a friendly match between RFC and Myanmar’s national team, hoping it would help the Myanmar public see through the military propaganda that seeded the myth that the Rohingya are foreign to Myanmar. His offer was met with silence, and then, hate.
The Myanmar Football Federation never got in touch. Myanmar football fans who learned of the invitation on social media dismissed the concept of a Rohingya football team, parroting the claim that has become increasingly acceptable in public over the last few years – that the Rohingya are not a real ethnic group. Noor even recalls a rumor spread by followers of the ultra-nationalist Buddhist monk Wirathu claiming that RFC had been inducted into FIFA, the governing body for international football. The nationalists rallied online to have the club’s alleged membership revoked.
“It was like genocide beyond borders,” Noor told Coconuts. “When we put it on the table that we would play with the Myanmar national team, we extended the hand of friendship, even after [the country] had dehumanized us. After all that hate and criticism, the deal is off the table.”
Noor is not alone in calling for the tour’s cancellation. Fabian Hamilton, a long-time MP representing parts of Leeds, told Coconuts: “The danger is that a prominent football team, from a place where many of their fans live and I am extremely proud to represent, will be tacitly endorsing this senseless and violent behavior by the Myanmar government in the persecution of the Rohingya. It is completely unacceptable and should be cancelled immediately.”
Rights groups and senior UN officials have called for Myanmar to be referred to the International Criminal Court over the military’s mass displacement of around 700,000 Rohingya since Aug. 2017.
Kyaw Win, director of the Burma Human Rights Network, has called specific attention to the fact Leeds United’s matches in Myanmar are being sponsored by AYA Bank, whose owner Zaw Zaw was once blacklisted by the United States for his ties to the military junta.
“It is unthinkable that the club has decided to partner with an individual with established ties to those responsible for these atrocities. I urge Leeds United to immediately reconsider their decision. To go ahead is to be complicit in normalizing individuals and entities implicated in war crimes,” Kyaw Win said in a public statement issued on May 8.
A spokesperson for Leeds United did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Friendship and harmony
Noor agrees that cancelling the tour would be an important gesture of solidarity with both the Rohingya and with the international community. He wants Myanmar’s leaders to learn that injustice has consequences. However, that doesn’t mean he opposes the English club’s trip to Southeast Asia altogether.
When he announced the tour last month, Leeds United managing director Angus Kinnear said its purpose was to “meet new fans of football who will hopefully support our journey back to the Premier League in the coming years.”
To Noor, Kinnear’s wish presents an opportunity for friendship and harmony, albeit one that does not include Myanmar and that must be seized with the next 24 hours.
“If they are going to Myanmar to win fame, they are going to the wrong place. They will be shaking hands with killers,” he said. “They will be more famous, they will get more respect around the world by playing with us. If they play with RFC, they will only get criticism from Burma. If they play with Burma, they’ll get criticism from the rest of the world.”
Hamilton, the Leeds MP, endorsed the idea: “I feel that cancelling this tour completely is the best course of action. However, if Leeds United do go ahead with the tour, while I would obviously support some engagement with Rohingya FC, it is up to Leeds United what they do on that tour.”
After sharing his story, Noor presented an ultimatum to the club’s owner and players, one which will fall to ticket holders if the club ultimately refuses to alter its course: “They can join the most persecuted people, or they can join the oppressor. Either decision is a statement.”