Myanmar has much to teach autocratic Arab leaders when it comes to soccer

Myanmar football chief Zaw Zaw urges fans to keep calm during the second leg of a World Cup qualifier in late July against Oman at Thuwunna Stadium in Yangon, Myanmar. The game was abandoned after fans threw rocks, shoes and water bottles onto the field and a member of Oman’s coaching staff was reported to have suffered a head injury (Source: AP Photo)

By James M. Dorsey

When it comes to soccer as a release valve for pent-up anger and frustration, Myanmar’s authoritarian leaders are proving to be far better students of Roman history than their embattled Arab counterparts.

If Arab leaders turned soccer pitches into battlefields for political freedom; economic opportunity; ethnic, religious and national identity; and gender rights, Myanmar’s autocrats made soccer the modern day equivalent of giving the people bread and circuses.

A New York Times report describes soccer games in the impoverished, southeast Asian nation as a “carnival of drunken revelry” - the only place where Burmese, who can be sentenced to up to 100 years in prison for speaking out against the government, have in the words of a 15-year old high school student “the freedom to yell anything I want.”

Formed in 2008 with the encouragement of the government at a time of widespread anger at the military’s handling of a deadly cyclone and fresh memories of large-scale protests led by Buddhist monks the previous year, the Myanmar National League, has become the nation’s national escape from the hardship and drudgery of daily life – “an island of raucous merriment in a sea of grinding poverty and fear,” according the Times.

“When someone faces a lot of hardship and burdens in his daily life, he wants to forget them,” the Times quoted U Ko Htut, a prominent Burmese soccer journalist, as saying.

Mr. Ko Htut was imprisoned for 13 years and tortured for perceived crimes as a student activist during a major uprising in 1988. Writing about sports, he says, is the closest thing to freedom of expression in Myanmar. The censors rarely bother him, he said, unlike political journalists who spend their careers having their work excised and redacted.

To support the league, the Myanmar government headed by General Than Shwe, a soccer fan who stepped down earlier this year, built stadiums in 2008 after dropping plans to bid for Manchester United, according to a US diplomatic cable leaked by Wikileaks. General Shwe backed away from acquiring the crowned English club when he realized that buying the crowned English club would look bad at a time that his country was struggling to recover from a cyclone that killed 140,000 people.

Like in Middle Eastern and North African autocracies, the newly-built stadiums in Myanmar are surrounded during matches by riot police and security forces, but unlike in the Arab world they turn a blind eye to brawls between fans; the hurling of obscene and personal invective at referees who symbolize hated authority; and the throwing of rocks, shoes and water bottles onto the field.

By contrast, Egyptian soccer pitches, were training grounds on which almost weekly clashes with security forces prepared militant soccer fans for mass anti-government protests earlier this year on Cairo’s Tahrir Square and clashes with supporters of Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted after 30 years in offices. As a result, the militants played a key role in destroying the barricade of fear that had prevented Egyptians for years from rising up against the Mubarak regime’s repression and humiliation of its citizens.

With other words, if a match in Myanmar offers 90 minutes of “unfettered liberty” in which Burmese let off steam, in the Middle East and North Africa it often was 1.5 hours in which fans asserted their rights and resisted attempts of autocratic leaders to harness the game for their political purposes. Fans emerged from the battle invigorated for the next one.

In Myanmar, a nation that ranks as one of Asia’s most impoverished countries as well as one of its most expensive, two things are cheap unlike in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa: rice and tickets for soccer matches.

A recent study by two researchers of Cairo’s Ain Shams University concluded that divorce rates in Egypt were highest in families where the men are avid soccer fans. The husbands’ expenditure on soccer paraphernalia and expensive match tickets was a major irritant in marriages where husband and wife failed to share the same passion for soccer, the study, the first of its kind in a country where discussing divorce has long been taboo even though it has one of the Arab world’s highest divorce rates, said.

“Such expenditures tighten the budget of families to the point that they are barely able to meet their basic needs, and therefore leave no money for recreation. In addition, a man and his wife need to communicate in order to stay strong, but unfortunately soccer-instigated tension means that espousal violence is getting the better of people,” Hamdi Abdul Azeem, one of the researchers, wrote.

Mr. Azeem said that husbands tended to cancel summer vacations to be able to watch matches and afford tickets in a bid to escape their economic, marital and [personal problems. “It is a reality today that millions of husbands have no choice but to stay home, seeking entertainment from watching soccer matches. In doing so, families barely talk to each other anymore and their feelings are always tense,” he said.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.


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