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Myanmar sports stars wrestle with coup responses

Some athletes are speaking out but Olympic boycott looks unlikely

Win Htet Oo, a Myanmar swimmer based in Australia, made headlines around the world in April when he said he would not represent the country in the Tokyo Olympics.   © Reuters

SEOUL -- It is unusual for soccer games in Malaysia's second tier to make international headlines, but it happened in early April when Hein Htet Aung showed his feelings about February's military coup in his Myanmar homeland.

After a goal was scored, Hein Htet Aung gave a three-fingered gesture, popularized in the "Hunger Games" film series and adopted by pro-democracy protesters in Thailand and Hong Kong as a symbol of resistance.

He was promptly banned from the next game by the Football Association of Malaysia, which, like most national sporting organizations, frowns on political activism. "Football must be above race, religion and politics," said Baljit Singh Sidhu, chairman of the FAM's disciplinary committee, adding that the gesture was "unsportsmanlike."

There is, however, a long history of political protests by athletes. Recently, soccer players have highlighted claims of human rights abuses against migrants in Qatar ahead the 2022 World Cup, and many athletes have "taken the knee" before events in support of the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S., which highlights racial discrimination.

The Myanmar coup, which reinstated military control after a decade of quasi-democracy, has made the political situation in the country another international issue. Hundreds of thousands of Myanmar people took to the streets to protest against the coup, triggering violence from the security forces, which have killed at least 780 protesters according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a human rights group.

Myanmar's Hein Htet Aung, left, dribbles the ball during a soccer match against Macao in 2019 in Yangon. The Football Association of Malaysia, where he plays, recently suspended him for giving a three-finger salute during a game as a symbol of resistance against the coup in his homeland.    © AP

However, there has been little international activism by athletes, according to Simon Chadwick, a professor of Eurasian sport at Emlyon Business School in France. "It involves a military conflict, bordering on civil war and genocide, and these are issues which some in sport may neither understand, feel uncomfortable about or be familiar with," Chadwick said. "Myanmar is not like BLM, which has relevance to the daily lives of people, and it's not Qatar and migrant rights, because there's no World Cup upcoming in Myanmar."

In the absence of overseas activism, Myanmar sports stars have been trying to highlight what is happening in their country, ahead of the Tokyo Olympic Games -- due to start in July -- and a number of important soccer fixtures for the national team in May and June. These events give the country an opportunity to win plaudits and prizes, and offer a platform for athletes disturbed by recent events to speak out to the international community.

Win Htet Oo, a Myanmar swimmer based in Australia, made headlines around the world in April when he said he would not represent the country in Japan. "I may be saying goodbye to a dream I've had since I first learned to swim," he wrote on social media. "Standing tall amongst the world's greatest athletes in equal terms. I will not but just as well I shall not march in the parade of nations under a flag steeped in my people's blood."

Win Htet Oo has been vocal about his opposition to the coup, even if it means not participating in the Olympics, a long-held dream of his. "I shall not march in the parade of nations under a flag steeped in my people’s blood," he wrote on social media.   © Reuters

Melbourne-based Win Htet Oo also called on the International Olympic Committee to stop Myanmar from participating in the Olympics, asserting that the Myanmar Olympic Committee "has forfeited all of its responsibilities for the Olympic Movement."

Labeling the MOC an illegitimate organization, he added: "I warn that any continued association with [it will] irrevocably tarnish the IOC's good standing." He said that allowing Myanmar to participate in Japan would be to "to recognize the legitimacy of a murderous regime."

Myanmar athletes will have a further opportunity to protest the coup on May 28, when the national soccer team is scheduled to travel to Japan to take on the Olympic host nation, as well as Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. These games will serve as qualifiers for both the 2022 World Cup and the 2023 Asian Cup.

A relative of Ma Kyal Sin, a prominent taekwondo instructor who was shot dead by the military, mourns during her funeral ceremony on March 4.   © AP

The former is out of reach for the Myanmar team, known as the White Wolves, but there is still a chance that it could qualify for the Asian Cup for the first time since 1968. That would usually be greeted by massive celebrations in the soccer-mad country, as was the case when the national team qualified for the 2015 Under 20 World Cup.

This time may be different, though, not least because in March, soccer star Chit Bo Bo Nyein was shot dead by the military, as was Ma Kyal Sin, a prominent taekwondo instructor. An official from the national soccer federation, who did not want to be named, said that several prominent players have returned to their home provinces and will not be available for selection.

Myanmar goalkeeper Kyaw Zin Htet certainly will not be playing. "We will only play football on the street until we get democracy," he said during a protest by players in Yangon on Feb. 13. "We won't play for the national team under the military dictatorship and we are protesting to send that message."

The goalkeeper was not alone. As colleagues passed a ball around the streets to keep fellow demonstrators entertained, former national team captain Thiha Sithu said: "We are football players but we are also citizens of Myanmar." Standing in front of a picture of the coup leader with the caption "Shame on You Dictator, we never forgive you," Thiha Sithu added: "We know people are relying on each other at this moment, and people in sports are participating in this revolution."

Myanmar's mixed martial arts champion Aung La Nsang, perhaps the country's biggest sports star, initially resisted pressure to speak out.

"As a person with so many followers I feel like I should be able to do more, but it's beyond my powers; a lot of my fans haven't understood that," Aung La Nsang said in April. "I'm a father and a husband but I'm not a politician. I don't have the ability to make this go away." He added that fans had told him he should be ashamed of himself for not speaking out. "I want things to end, just like they do."

Myanmar mixed martial arts champion Aung La Nsang, perhaps the country’s biggest sports star, initially resisted pressure to speak out. (Getty Images)

However, Aung La Nsang did speak out in mid-May after fellow MMA fighter Phoe Thaw was injured, allegedly while trying to make a protest bomb, writing on Instagram that his friend was "a gentleman and good-hearted human being." He added: "Please try not to spread fake news and hate."

Myanmar's democracy protesters will be hoping for support from international sports stars as global sports events begin to resume following the COVID-19 pandemic. But they are unlikely to receive much backing from International sporting organizations, which rarely act against or condemn regimes that oppress their own citizens, preferring to stay out of politics rather than risk angering member states.

The IOC, for example, has yet to make a statement regarding Myanmar, and it would be a surprise if it did so. Soccer authorities such as FIFA, the global soccer federation, also prefer not to comment on such matters, even when there is evidence of state-sponsored violence.

Widespread condemnation by the member states of such organizations might force a change of heart, though. "Given the global nature of both the IOC's and FIFA's constituencies, if members of either were being especially vocal in their condemnation of the government in Myanmar then it would be more likely that the two governing bodies would act," said Chadwick.

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