An Australian A-League team has been criticised for playing a football match in war-torn Myanmar against the government’s official travel advice, with some observers calling the move dangerous.
- The Asian Football Confederation scheduled a match in crisis-ridden Myanmar
- Activists are concerned about Shan United’s owner and his business links to the military
- There are calls for Shan United’s visas to be rejected ahead of a game in Australia
The Macarthur Bulls, a team from south-western Sydney, defeated Myanmar team Shan United 3-0 during an Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Cup match held at the almost-empty Thuwunna Stadium in Yangon in late September.
Human rights groups have expressed concerns about Shan United’s ownership and links to businesses controlled by the Myanmar military junta, including one sanctioned by Australia.
There are now calls for the Shan United players to be denied visas to Australia ahead of an upcoming match on November 30.
The Australian government’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) continues to advise that Australians “do not travel” to Myanmar “due to ongoing civil unrest, armed conflict and the volatile security environment” in the wake of the 2021 military coup.
“Violence, including explosions and attacks, can occur anywhere and anytime, including in Yangon,” the Smartraveller advice reads, adding that attacks may be planned against locations that foreigners frequent, and that Australians may be at risk of arbitrary detention.
“We encourage all Australians to heed this advice,” DFAT told the ABC.
The ABC understands DFAT officials spoke to Macarthur Football Club’s management and Football Australia to reiterate the government’s official travel advice.
In a statement, Macarthur said it is a member of Football Australia, the Asian Football Confederation and hence FIFA.
“As such, we operate within the rule and regulation framework adopted and implemented through the governance of these organisations,” the club said.
Football Australia told the ABC that if Macarthur did not play the match in Yangon, the club would have been forced to withdraw from the competition.
“Both Macarthur FC and Football Australia formally requested the match be shifted to neutral territory considering the DFAT travel advice. The club also offered to meet the costs of this shift, where the request was denied,” a Football Australia spokesperson said.
“Having exhausted these alternatives, the club made the decision to play this match as drawn and scheduled.
“Football Australia arranged security in line with other past football events played abroad and no incidents occurred, where the team was in Yangon for a short period of time.”
The ABC understands fines can also be imposed — three A-League teams played in the AFC Asian Champions League in Qatar in 2020 despite COVID-19 concerns because they faced a $300,000 fine and two-year suspension from the tournament if they withdrew.
‘What were the football managers thinking?’
Sean Turnell, an Australian economist who was arbitrarily detained by Myanmar’s military junta for more than 650 days, told the ABC the decision to play soccer in the country where he was incarcerated was a questionable one.
“I think it incredibly unwise for an Australian soccer team to go to Myanmar,” he said.
“Unwise politically – the visit can be used by the regime to suggest international acceptance – but unwise for reasons of safety too.”
Chris Sidoti, a member of the Special Advisory Council for Myanmar, said it was surprising given the “absolutely appalling” security situation in the country.
“This Australian football team went into Yangon – a place where there are killings and bombings on a daily basis – against the advice of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade,” he said.
“Really, what were the football managers thinking? It placed their team at very high risk.”
More than 4,000 have been killed and more than 24,000 arrested since the coup on February 1, 2021, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma).
But Mr Sidoti said even if it had been safe, it would still be inappropriate.
“Holding a football match in Yangon is really cooperating with the military and relying on the military because you can’t get into Yangon international airport without military approval,” he said.
DFAT said the Australian government “strongly condemns the ongoing repression and violence by the Myanmar regime”.
The AFC was contacted for comment.
Shan United’s ‘crony’ ownership
Activist group Justice For Myanmar has expressed concern about Shan United’s owner and his links to military-controlled businesses.
Shan United is owned by Kun Naung Myint Wai, the chairman of Wa Minn Corporation.
The Wa Minn Corporation is the developer of the Manawhari Commercial Complex, which sits on land leased from the Ministry of Defence, according to data from the Myanmar Investment Commission last updated in 2019 and released by Distributed Denial of Secrets — a journalist organisation with a focus on transparency and data.
The Ministry of Defence has been sanctioned by the US since June this year over the military regime’s atrocities.
Data last updated in 2018 also shows Kun Naung Myint Wai’s name appearing as an investor on the Yangon Riverview Complex, on land owned by Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC).
The MEC is a military-controlled entity subjected to targeted financial sanctions by Australia since February this year.
It is unclear if the payments to the Department of Defence and the MEC continued after the coup and the sanctions, although the Manawhari project is listed as “on going” on Wa Minn’s website.
Wa Minn Corporation has been contacted to ask about Kun Naung Myint Wai’s involvement in the projects, but the ABC did not receive a response by deadline.
“As a company with business links to the Myanmar military, Wa Minn Group should be targeted for sanctions and its employees, including the Shan United football team, should be denied visas to Australia,” Yadanar Maung, the Justice For Myanmar spokesperson, said.
“As an AFC member, Football Australia should take a stand in support of democracy in Myanmar by pushing for a ban of Myanmar teams as long as the military’s illegal coup attempt continues.”
The head Myanmar’s Football Federation, Zaw Zaw, is a vice-president of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC).
Zaw Zaw is also the chairperson of Max Myanmar. A UN fact-finding mission on Myanmar report from 2019 found he donated almost $US1 million in 2017 to the military for the construction of a fence along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border.
The mission found that the funding for the border wall “played an integral part in the inhumane act of preventing Rohingya from accessing their homeland” and said that officials from Max Myanmar should be investigated for possible criminal prosecutions for aiding or abetting the persecution of Rohingya “and other inhumane acts”.
Calls for visa rejections and new sanctions
The Australian-based Myanmar Campaign Network is calling for an additional tranche of sanctions on Myanmar.
“It’s a crucial moment for Australia to act decisively and sanction these financial institutions and cronies,” campaigner Tasneem Roc said.
Mr Sidoti, who has studied military business ties both as part of the UN fact-finding mission and on the Special Advisory Council, said cronies operate by enriching the military and they get rich in turn.
“This football club would not be operating like this, and the company of the owner of the football club would not be operating so profitably in Myanmar without hand-in-glove cooperation with the military – that I can say for sure,” he said.
“This is the way crony business operates in Myanmar. And it’s mutually enriching for both the military and for the entrepreneurs who are behind the businesses.”
He agreed with calls from Justice For Myanmar and the Myanmar Campaign Network for Shan United visas to be rejected.
The Department of Home Affairs said it considered visa applications on a case-by-case basis.
“The visas should certainly be denied, and the match should certainly not occur,” Mr Sidoti said.
“It’s outrageous to think that there is an official football team from Myanmar about to come to Australia, when we know what is going on in that country.”
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