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Football and pagodas galore, but no bread at Burma’s circus

In the chaotic weeks following Cyclone Nargis that wrecked the Irrawaddy Delta in May 2008, readers of the New Light of Myanmar, one of the more preposterous of the junta’s propaganda organs, would have noticed that despite the terrible havoc, lobster was still arriving on the tables of the well-to-do in Rangoon. (Following this October’s Cyclone Giri, the UN estimates malnutrition in Burma to be over 40 per cent.)

The fishing port in the township of Bogalay, where 95 per cent of the buildings were destroyed, was repaired immediately, to ‘ensure speedy and normal inflow of commodities from other parts of the country’ to Rangoon.

It was not the only sign at the time of the crazy priorities of Burma’s military élite. The release of thousands of documents of confidential US diplomatic correspondence by Wikileaks revealed that Senior General Than Shwe considered buying British football club Manchester United for $1bn (£634m) shortly after Nargis struck.

The move, which was intended to woo the masses like the Roman coliseum of old, was considered on the insistence of Than Shwe’s grandson’s friend Zaw Zaw, a rising star in the oligarchy and head of the Myanmar Football Federation.

Instead, Than Shwe signed-off on a multi-million dollar professional football league, headed by selected ‘business leaders’, while survivors of Nargis lacked shelter, water and medicine.

Though the owners of the new clubs apparently had no choice in the matter, their contracts will undoubtedly come with the usual perks of operating in one of the most corrupt countries on earth: construction and engineering contracts, mining and prospecting rights, logging and import-export contracts.

The Corruption Perceptions Index 2010, published by Germany-based pressure group Transparency International, ranks Burma on a par with Afghanistan in terms of the level of systematic corruption. Only Somalia is given a worse rating out of 178 countries surveyed. Illicit betting on top-flight European football has become a major business in Burma and forms part of a wider network of Asian betting rings.

Who owns Burmese football?

The Myanmar National League (MNL) is an expensive reinvention of the Myanmar Premier League (MPL) that formed in 1996. The MPL teams’ names were rather bizarre; like Finance and Revenue, which won 11 out of the 13 competitions held.

The eight new teams that were established in the run up to the November election were created as ‘joint ventures’ between the regime and prominent companies, both international and Burmese, with the intention of influencing different regions in the vote, a Rangoon-based observer told the Irrawaddy magazine. ‘It will therefore provide things that the public like, such as football and pagodas. In that way, they can grab everyone’s attention,’ he said.

It’s the implementation of an old idea: that it is possible to pacify a restless and disobedient population with games which lift the ‘national spirit’ – although there are no signs that people have been fooled by this obvious ploy.

The ‘sponsors’ are a motley bunch.

Zaw Zaw, head of the Myanmar Football Federation ,owns Max Myanmar Co; a company involved in everything from cement, rubber, a jade mine, bottled drinks and, until FIFA (football’s governing world body) said it broke the rules, one of the eight teams. He was described by US embassy officials as ‘one of Burma’s up-and-coming cronies’. Most of the ingredients in Max Co’s carbonated drinks come from the US and Germany.

The Phakant Jade Mine is possibly the most famous in the world and produces massive wealth for Max Co. Its workers are offered relief from the toil in ‘shooting galleries’ where a hit of the Golden Triangle’s finest is cheaper than a beer. Methamphetamine is becoming increasingly popular.

Eden Group, in charge of Delta United representing the Irawaddy region, is reportedly involved with Russian firms prospecting for uranium near Mandalay and in Arakan and Kachin State, as well as owning a golf resort and hotels in many popular tourist spots.

Htay Myint, one of the wealthiest of Burma’s tycoons and a close ally of the son of the regime’s number two, Gen. Maung Aye, won the contract to run the Tenasserim team. His company, Yuzana, specializes in ‘real estate development’ and has been involved in mass land grabs in Kachin State in the north.

Yuzana has close ties with former Prime Minister and chief spook Lt Gen Khin Nyunt, who introduced the ‘seven step roadmap to guided democracy’ and is now under indefinite ‘house arrest’ for corruption.

Running Rangoon’s team is Htoo Group, owned by Tay Za, whose commercial empire was specifically targeted by new US sanctions in 2008 and described by the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control as ‘an arms dealer and financial henchman of Burma’s repressive regime’. In true football tycoon style, he drives a Bentley, Ferrari, Mercedes and a Lexus.

Htoo Group has deforested vast swathes of Karen State in eastern Burma, as well as being one of two companies granted major construction contracts to build Naypyidaw, the junta’s administrative capital, from scratch. The son of Gen ‘Thura’ Shwe Mann is also a chairman of Htoo Group, which bases most of its wealth in Singapore bank accounts. Campaigning NGO Global Witness has said the company’s logging business is responsible for most of the country’s environmental degradation. The company’s fuel export contracts contributed significantly to the popular uprising in 2007 as part of the move to privatize the industry.

Asia World Co, founded by infamous opium drug lord Lo Hsing Han in 1992, runs Magwe FC, based near an airbase which will be used to launch attacks against ethnic nationalities during the coming dry season. The current director of Asia World, Tun Myint Naing, otherwise known as Steven Law, was denied a US visa in 1996 due to allegations of narcotics trafficking. Law’s financial network effectively acts as a state within a state.

The list goes on. Canon, headquartered in Tokyo, is a co-sponsor of the league. In the past the company has backed the English Football League, European competitions, the African Cup and the World Cup.

The whole sordid affair is insured or reinsured, predominantly, it must be added, by European insurance firms.

A troubled history
The official truth that the owners of world football (or soccer) preach is this: football unites the world in peace under the banner of apolitical sporting achievement.

But the truth is that sport in general and particularly football, is intensely political, and has a historical relationship to big business, internal repression and organized crime (see Terry Eagleton and Dave Zirin’s debate for starters).

George Orwell once wrote that ‘at the international level sport is frankly mimic warfare.’ This is often evident in displays of nationalism based on historical conflicts, for example, when England play Germany.

Sometimes it becomes more real.

An oft forgotten conflict – the war between Honduras and El Salvador in 1969, known as the ‘Soccer War’ – was ignited by a football match. When El Salvador lost in the final minute of the second leg, 18-year-old Amelia Bolaños ‘got up and ran to the desk which contained her father’s pistol in a drawer. She then shot herself in the heart,’ wrote renowned Polish journalist, Ryszard Kapuscinski in The Soccer War. She had fired the first shot in a very real war which claimed thousands of lives over four years.

The world barely batted an eyelid, consumed by the war in Vietnam. After all, as Kapuscinski pointed out, these were two small, poor, coffee-exporting nations that had never before qualified for a World Cup nor done much else to make the world notice them.

A little over a decade after Chile co-hosted the tournament in 1962 – under the Western-backed Pinochet dictatorship – thousands were interned, tortured and executed in Santiago’s Estadio Nacional. In 1974 the Soviet Union refused to play Chile in a qualifier and so Pinochet’s team automatically qualified. There were 80 concentration camps in Chile at the time; one of which, Estadio Chile, is where folk singer Victor Jara was murdered amongst countless others.

Uday Hussein, son of former Iraqi dictator Saddam, was known for torturing Iraqi footballers who displeased him. Since the US-led invasion, many of the same people involved were put back in charge of the Iraq Football Association.

Resistance on the terraces
Perhaps the regime wishes to revive the golden era of Burmese sporting achievement. There was a time – between 1965 and 1973 – when Burma dominated Asian football, winning the biennial Southeast Asian Games five times, and the Asian Games twice. This has certainly been a goal since the early 1990s when privatization and sports began to be encouraged as a way to wriggle free of political and economic isolation;  over six hundred clubs were established and nearly 20,000 players played the game.

But what hope is there for a football league, so mired in corruption and humanitarian abuses, and so closely allied with such a malign regime?

The football stadiums are becoming another frontier in a struggle for expressing the population’s dissent against the ruling interests. Fights between riot police and supporters are a regular occurance. A Rangoon businessman told the Irrawaddy in 2009: ‘Every time Tay Za’s team competes, the fans mock and swear at their players. They shout things like, “Tay Za’s team is bad, his airline sucks.”’ At a match in Rangoon fans chanted ‘Don’t fly with Air Bagan!’ who sponsor the club.

The article continues:

They mock the generals, as well as officials and businessmen who are associated with them. They do this even when Nay Shwe Thway Aung, the grandson of the junta’s paramount leader, Snr-Gen Than Shwe, attends matches, according to residents. The supremo’s grandson comes protected by about 100 security guards. 

Some in the crowd express political opinions and spread information. Others moan about the economic and social problems they face, according to Rangoon residents who go to the matches.

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