English football club Leeds United have embarked on a controversial post-season tour of Myanmar despite calls from parliamentarians and human rights charities to abandon the trip over the Burmese government’s treatment of its Muslim Rohingya minority.
Last year, Myanmar security forces carried out what Human Rights Watch has described as an “ethnic cleansing campaign” against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State, causing thousands of Rohingya to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh.
The Myanmar government has consistently denied accusations of ethnic cleansing and has refused to cooperate with the international community on the issue.
Upon arriving in the country on Tuesday, Leeds United’s owner Andrea Radrizzani took to Instagram to share a picture of himself and the squad in Yangon, where his side will play one of two post-season friendlies in the country.
The team took the time to visit some tourist attractions on Wednesday including the Shwedagon Pagoda- the most sacred Buddhist pagoda in Myanmar- ahead of their game against the Burmese league’s All Stars. The side will travel to Mandalay on Friday to play the national team.
Explaining the reason behind the tour, Leeds United managing director Angus Kinnear said: “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.”
Charities and parliamentarians had called for the tour, which is being sponsored by a bank with close links to the government, to be cancelled.
Amnesty International’s UK director Kate Allen described Myanmar as “an odd choice of country to choose to tour”.
She said: “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.”
While Labour Party MPs in Leeds wrote an open letter to Mr Radrizzani urging him to rethink the trip, saying they did not want the club to be seen as “helping to promote a country whose government has been responsible for such horrific crimes against people it has persecuted for decades”.
But the Italian businessman decided to press ahead anyway, explaining in an open letter to fans that Myanmar was a country “close to his heart”.
He wrote: “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.”
Media entrepreneur Radrizzani recently secured lucrative broadcasting rights to show Spain’s top flight matches in the UK and Ireland.
The Italian owner’s company Eleven Sports outbid Sky Sports in an exclusive three-year deal to show La Liga matches from next season.
Eleven Sports have already secured a foothold in other European countries including Italy, Poland, Belgium and Luxembourg through obtaining the rights to show Serie A, Ligue 1 and Bundesliga matches. However, the La Liga deal is the company’s first foray into the UK market.
Mr Radrizzani, who took full ownership of Championship side Leeds in 2017 on a promise to return the club to the top flight of English football, also has business interests in sports media firms working in southeast Asia.
The decision to take Leeds United to Myanmar is believed to be an attempt to promote the club in the region.