Leeds United Trip to Myanmar

I heard a bit of a radio broadcast recently where a person was talking about ambivalence and it struck a chord with me.

Ambivalence means “undecided” and it struck me that pressure is on us all nowadays to have a definite view on everything, where we look at the world in black and white. Ambivalent is a state that is thought of as negative or weak, to be avoided, but the chap on the radio was explaining how he feels it is acceptable to be ambivalent and I quickly agreed.

Throughout life we are pressured to have an opinion, to have reached a single clear conclusion. For instance, we must be either for or against Brexit, we must vote Tory or Labour, be male or female, like marmite or hate marmite, and so forth. Yet many of us see both strengths and weaknesses in the EU, have both social feelings and support a free market, etc. In other words we are ambivalent about many of these choices and don’t have a neatly formed view.

These thoughts were raised on the radio at a time when I was thinking about Leeds United’s trip to Myanmar and describe my ambivalence of it perfectly.

Don’t care
Now let me be clear: Ambivalence does not mean I don’t care. Far from it, it merely means I can see the issue from more than one viewpoint and I can’t boil them all down to a single, easily-stated opinion.

Let me digress
Many years ago, as a child, I watched a news item with my father where a group of 20 Africans were blindfolded and tied to posts before being killed by machine guns held by local police. I was horrified but my father said “don’t judge other people by the standards in our country at this point of time”.

It took me some years before I fully understood what he meant. In history lessons at school I learnt about the French revolution and how the French beheaded their own people with guillotines in public, how in England my own country-folk flocked to public hangings until relatively recently, how Queens of England were publicly beheaded, how hanged bodies were covered in tar to preserve them before being displayed as public warnings to the population, how Englishmen committed mass murder in Ireland 400 years ago and many, many more horrendous atrocities.

The words of my father stayed with me as I learnt of these atrocities and I realised I “couldn’t judge those people and those times by the comfortable standards of my life in my period of time”.

Fast forward to more recent events. There are atrocities that happen around the world that I find deplorable but I know I don’t understand the reasons for. For example, the bodies that investigate such happenings have railed against atrocities committed in China and I still have an image of a student being killed by a tank in Tienanmen Square etched in my head; I know I don’t understand the intricacies of China and I don’t understand why I’m typing this article on a phone made in China, possibly made under sweatshop shop conditions and working practices that would not be allowed in England.

But typing this on a product of Chinese atrocities doesn’t mean I don’t care.

In a similar vein I don’t understand the Irish situation. Throughout my life Irish people have committed mass murder against their own people, they’ve committed mass murder against English people and been killed by English too. I’ve visited Ireland, both North and South, and it seems a country just like my own so I should be able to judge it. However, if the Irish felt the same as me they wouldn’t commit mass murder so I clearly don’t understand the situation properly.

So what of Myanmar?
Unlike many, I had read of Myanmar and their problems before the Club announced the trip. I knew of the violence and refugee crisis, the tribal conflicts and the changes to the political system bringing democracy and marginalising the military junta.

However I don’t understand enough to judge them.

For instance, recent events have shown the UK government’s confusion over legally resident immigrants of the Windrush generation and illegal immigrants. Brexit has brought some English people’s dislike of Europeans living in the UK, and their desire to send them home, into the limelight.

I’ve read that the Burmese Government view the Rohingya people as illegal immigrants from Bengal and refer to them as Bengali. I’ve read that the Burmese Government wants to expel them just like our Government wants to expel illegal immigrants. I don’t understand enough to know whether they should be viewed as illegal immigrants so I can’t judge them.

I’ve read that the Burmese Government is struggling to control the military in the outlying regions, I’ve read of brutality and murder committed by the military on the Rohingya people and their murderous attacks on military posts in revenge, and that cycle of violence seems to be continuing. Again, this is a situation so far removed from my own comfortable existence that I find myself unable to judge. Yes I find it horrific but I’m not qualified to judge.

It doesn’t mean I don’t care.

The one thing I am sure of is that any solution will be difficult and multifaceted.

It seems to me that the stock answer from our politicians to many similar situations is to impose a trade embargo and cut the errant country off from the West. This has isolated North Korea from South Korea until recently, however it seems to me that North Korea was able to get all their ruling party wanted via China and it was only the citizens who suffered.

North Korea has recently indicated a willingness to integrate with the World again but has it already become democratic? Has it stopped its oppression of its citizens? Has it implemented total change overnight? No, no and no!

So if North Korea hasn’t stopped atrocities should we ignore these first green shoots of change or should we talk to North Korea and encourage them to open up to more humane ways?

Similarly in Ireland 20 years ago. Many people were horrified that some politicians were talking to the murderous IRA and other murderous organisations, offering forgiveness and welcoming them into the Irish political process. I repeat that I don’t understand enough to judge but this process of nurturing green shoots of peace seems to have been beneficial.

Within Myanmar the military has been displaced and a democratic Government is in place. The military still has influence that the Government wants to reduce over time and I can see benefits to its people if we can nurture these green shoots of democracy.

The British Chamber of Commerce has had an office in Myanmar encouraging UK firms to trade there for the last six years and has been successful in that task.

Hotel chains Hilton and Novotel have built hotels there which Leeds United will stay in. Tourism is rapidly increasing, although variable, with over 3 million visitors in 2016. Myanmar factories make clothing for western shops which consumers can buy at low prices due to the current low standard of living in Myanmar. The list goes on but I’m not saying that this list justifies a Leeds United trip as others have attempted to.

Rather I’d say I can see how much damage was done to its citizens when the military junta cut Burma off from the rest of the world and I can see the good that these firms are doing now that the new democratic Government has opened Burma up again.

I find it odd that UK politicians called for Leeds United to withdraw from this trip. It seems odd because that would be implementing the self same isolationist policy that the military did and would be undoing the good that the democratic Government has started.

Had the UK Government followed the same advice and not talked to the IRA et al then maybe there would still not be peace in Ireland?

As I’ve read around this topic recently I’ve found absolutely nothing positive that these politicians have been doing to support the Myanmar people and the democratic Government, they just seem to have used the Leeds United name to score a political point rather than supply humanitarian help to citizens across the whole of Myanmar.

So why am I ambivalent, or undecided, about Leeds United going to Myanmar? I’ve given some reasons indicating I support all efforts to nurture green shoots of democracy and improvements in the lives of the Burmese so surely I should be in favour?

Well no!

I can see the atrocities that are being committed in parts of Myanmar. It is a country that is not yet united and has a long way to go.

The political situation in Myanmar is such that all and every interaction with the rest of the world is news and will get used for political purposes outside of our control.

Links to Asia, Australia and the West are used to legitimise Government and political actions in a way that they were not intended.

I could go on but other commentators have already written freely about the downsides of the trip and I’ve few arguments against.

Benefits for Leeds United
I’ve indicated that there are downsides for the Club in making the trip but what of the upsides? The Club has indicated it will receive no benefit through fees for the trip (I’m assuming costs are met or at least offset by the Aya Bank in organising the event) but there will be some benefits later, I would hope.

With the EPL top clubs already represented in Chinese and Asian markets we need to look at other ways to make an impact. Myanmar is strengthening its links to football and the trip will get our name known across the more developed parts. Myanmar has significant trade links with China, Thailand, India, Singapore etc and these are growing. Getting our name known in Myanmar will spread, perhaps slowly, over Asia – Club success on the pitch next season will quicken the pace of course.

These Asian countries are emerging markets for sports on TV or streaming and Media Rights and broadcasting will become more lucrative. Andrea Radrizzani is well placed to take advantage of such deals and able to pass income into the Club via licencing deals for the Club’s name being used. Yes, I’d imagine he’ll get some cash in his own wallet via his Asian companies but the Club should be able to benefit too.

It’s well known that Qatar sees football and sport as a way of improving the country’s standing within the world and it is probably for similar reasons that the Myanmar Football Association has links to Qatar.

I emphasise again that I’m not saying I feel comfortable taking money with the refugee crisis ongoing in remote parts of Myanmar, that’s why I’m ambivalent.

Like the speaker I heard on the radio I’ve decided I’m happy to be ambivalent about Leeds United’s trip to Myanmar. IE I’m going to embrace my indecision.

As my father advised, I’m not qualified or sufficiently knowledgeable to judge.

I have the horror I feel for the refugees but, just like Syrian refugees or migrants drowning daily in the Mediterranean, I feel I can’t directly help. I feel that for me to not go on holiday to Greece or Italy will do nothing to help the refugees arriving there, just as I feel Leeds United not going to Myanmar will do nothing to help the Rohingya people.

I can see that helping Myanmar open up to the world can only help the democratic Government reduce the influence of the military and improve the lives of their citizens.

I can see that the Club’s trip could be high-jacked to legitimise the wrong parts of the Myanmar political regime.

I can see how the Club needs increasing incomes if it is to compete with parachute payments and how we will need Global Markets if we are to become a top 8 EPL club. Liverpool had issues it had to ride through when it first went into Asia so these problems are nothing new.

There are so many sides to this trip that I’m going to declare myself ambivalent.

However, My new awareness of the refugee situation will give me added support for the United Nation’s new efforts to sort the problem out, a trip by the UN that has only just got underway.

BTW if you haven’t seen it there’s a good wildlife series on iPlayer called Wild Burma: Nature’s Lost Kingdom.

Mike Thornton 8th May 2018