Mandalay (Myanmar) (AFP) – Football fans in Myanmar welcomed Leeds United to the second-biggest city on Friday, lauding the club for competing in the country while it faces global criticism over the treatment of the Rohingya minority.
The English Championship football side are wrapping up a four-day tour of friendly matches with a final game against Myanmar’s national team that kicked off on a hot evening in Mandalay.
The Leeds trip comes at a time when Myanmar stands accused of driving out some 700,000 Rohingya Muslims in a campaign the UN and US have called ethnic cleansing.
Myanmar rejects the allegations and says it was defending itself against deadly militant attacks on police posts in August.
Leeds’ Italian tycoon owner Andrea Radrizzani has been unapologetic about the end-of-season visit, arguing that “we’re not politicians”.
Fans who attended the match at the Mandalar Thiri stadium in Mandalay agreed.
“Leeds is a famous team and we feel proud as they are playing here now,” said Nyi Soe, a 22-year-old fan from Mandalay who praised the footballers for coming.
“We heard about it (the criticism) but they came here as they respected football and we respect them,” he said.
Leeds lost their first friendly 2-1 in Yangon on Wednesday against an All-Star team.
The controversy over the decision to play in Myanmar occurred mostly outside the country, generating little to no opposition inside its borders, where the Rohingya are seen as outsiders from Bangladesh.
Zaw Min Htike, a spokesman for the Myanmar Football Federation, thanked the fans for “bringing peace and lovely cheers” to the matches.
“It shows Myanmar football fans love the sports, not giving any account to any political tension. This is very graceful for our image of football.”
The sentiment was not limited to local fans.
“As football fans we care about watching football and if it brings a little happiness to some of the local people then so be it,” said Leeds supporter Roy Schofield, 67. “It’s the government and the United Nations that need to sort out the political situation.”
This is not the first time sports and politics have clashed in Myanmar over the Rohingya crisis.
In January, Bangladeshi golfer Siddikur Rahman pulled out of the Myanmar Open, citing his support for refugees who fled mainly Buddhist Myanmar.