Leeds United to tour Myanmar despite military crackdown

Andrea Radrizzani
Leeds owner Andrea Radrizzani has business interests in sports media firms operating in eastern Asian countries

Leeds United will go on a post-season tour of Myanmar, despite an ongoing military crackdown in the country.

The two games scheduled for May are in areas in which Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) guidance is to "check travel advice before travelling".

The FCO advises against "all but essential travel" in some other areas of Myanmar, also known as Burma.

The United Nations described the issues in the northern Rakhine province as a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing".

The Championship club's social media accounts have advised fans "to wait for further advice" before arranging travel to the country.

The two matches will be on 9 and 11 May against a Myanmar National League All-Star team in Yangon, also known as Rangoon, and the country's national team in Mandalay.

"Myanmar is one of the fastest growing nations in South East Asia and is passionate about English football," said Leeds managing director Angus Kinnear.

"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 in the coming years."

A statement from the Leeds United Supporters' Trust said the tour was "a strange and controversial choice, given the dangerous political climate Myanmar currently finds itself in", but welcomed reassurances from the club about the safety of travelling fans.

Leeds say players and coaches will run football sessions with local children and will visit cultural sites, such as Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, and the Maha Myat Muni Pagoda in Mandalay.

Nearly 700,000 of Myanmar's Rohingya Muslim minority have fled the country since August because of ongoing military operations in Rakhine.

Amnesty International UK director Kate Allen said: "Far too often sporting events have been used as a cheap PR tool to 'sportswash' the stain of a country's human rights record.

"We're not going to tell Leeds United where they should and shouldn't visit.

"But if the tour does go ahead, the club should use its leverage to call for an end to the crackdown and raise with the Burmese authorities the plight of the hundreds of thousands of families who have been brutalised and forced to flee their homes."

Myanmar's government, which does not give the Rohingya citizenship and sees them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, says it is fighting militants and has denied targeting civilians.

A map of Myanmar
The areas shaded in orange are the regions in which the FCO advises against "all but essential travel". Leeds are due to play outside those regions - in Mandalay in the centre of the country and Yangon in the south

Analysis

BBC Radio Leeds commentator Adam Pope

I have spoken to Leeds about the trip, which is sponsored by a bank. The region has a population of around 50 million people and is seen as a market of interest and one that can afford the visit of Leeds, as opposed to top Premier League clubs who regularly go to wealthier areas of Asia.

The president of the Myanmar FA/League is a wealthy industrialist and, along with the rest of Asia, is Premier League-obsessed. Leeds see this as a chance to grow the club.

Stadiums have been checked and will comply to Fifa standards, with tickets expected to be a few dollars and crowds hoped to be around 20,000 fans.

Leeds owner Andrea Radrizzani has a business interest in the region with his company Eleven Sports.

In terms of health issues, Myanmar, like lots of Asia and other areas in the world, has problems with the Zika virus. I am told players will be tested and that the relevant medical care will be in operation.

The first-team squad will be travelling to Myanmar except for those on World Cup and international duty such as Pontus Jansson. The club also see it as a chance to give more game time to those returning from injury, such as Luke Ayling and Adam Forshaw, in what would have been the play-off period.

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