Words by George Storr & Kieran Ahuja. Featured image from Rohingyafc.com
According to UN special investigator Yanghee Lee, Genocide was still being committed in Myanmar against Rohingya Muslims as recently as October. More than 900,000 Rohingya people have fled Myanmar as a result of a 2017 military crackdown and now they’re attempting to enter the world of international football.
A majority Buddhist country, with 87.9% of the population following the religion, only 4.3% of Myanmar follow the Islamic faith. Gripped by one of the most abhorrently repressive regimes in the world until 2010, the world held hope for Myanmar when they held their first elections in decades, but the elections were almost immediately mired by accusations of fraud and voter intimidation. However, the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, a Burmese diplomat and Nobel Laureate, from house arrest immediately after the election, kept hopes alive.
From 2011 onwards, Myanmar began gradually to shed its less-than-stellar international reputation. Civil and political rights began to improve, political prisoners were released, and the country’s famously draconian reporting restrictions began to be relaxed. People allowed themselves some optimism in 2015 when Aun San Suu Kyi became the nation’s first state councillor, the country’s equivalent of a prime minister. However, her silence regarding the Genocide against Rohingya Muslims have led to calls for her Nobel Prize to be revoked.
The Rohingya people have faced systematic oppression since the enactment of a citizenship law in 1983 refused them Burmese citizenship. However, political liberalisation also led to an increase in Buddhist nationalism and islamophobia, a scourge directed towards the Rohingya people. Indeed, the consensus amongst Burmese Buddhists is that Rohingya people represent a threat to their religion. Laws enacted in 2015 codified these sentiments after lobbying from ‘MaBaTha’ groups, organisations that campaign for pro-Buddhist and anti-Muslim policy. The 2017 military crackdown turned sentiment into physical violence.
The diaspora now live in improvised refugee camps in neighbouring countries, the majority in Bangladesh, where they live in improvised refugee camps. Since August 2017, around 740,000 Rohingya Muslims have taken refuge in the country’s Cox’s Bazaar district, pushing Bangladesh’s facilities to the limit.
As a stateless and persecuted group, to gain some level of recognition of something even vaguely resembling a Rohingya nation could be a huge step forward. Refugees founded Rohingya FC in Malaysia in 2015. The team brings Rohingya Muslim refugees together and gives them purpose. The team is now recognised by CONIFA (the Confederation of Independent Football Associations,) and gain opportunities to compete in their international competitions, including the CONIFA World Cup.
While a far cry from being a member of FIFA, a CONIFA membership has been a source of pride for many under-represented groups in the past, most of which have had their nationhood disputed. Existing CONIFA members includes the likes of Tibet, Greenland, Kurdistan and, strangely, Yorkshire.
Teams in the CONIFA family often have very political backstories, and are often made up of persecuted peoples. Myanmar’s neighbour Tibet, who have struggled against repressive Chinese rule since a failed uprising 60 years ago led to the exile of the Dalai Lama, stand at 37 in the CONIFA rankings. Another Myanmar ethnic group, the Karen people, also have a team recognised by the federation.
The Rohingya FC website says:
“The Club’s passion for connecting people and for football combined into a vision to unite Rohingya community around the world and produce quality players all over Malaysia and other parts of the world. Being most persecuted people this club is a message of hope and harmony to the rest of the world.”
Although the team are now recognised by CONIFA, the team need to raise funds for travel, as they cannot hold bank accounts or work. A GoFundMe page has been set up for Rohingya FC with a target of two thousand euros.
Donors will receive a letter from the Asian Director of CONIFA, Jens Jockel, with larger donations leading to larger incentives. For some this could be a small price to pay to give a nationless and persecuted people a shred of welcome representation, even if only in a sporting context.
If you’re feeling particularly generous (got a spare €800?) then you can have CONIFA’s German challenge cup named after you. Or, for a mere €300, you could find yourself playing in the competition.
While this seems little more than a novelty to those of us used to enjoying televised, high profile, FIFA regulated international football, it could be of huge significance to the world’s most persecuted group. Watch out for Rohingya FC and, if you can, get behind them.
George Storr is a Manchester United season ticket holder with a love of the Premier League. he writes about football and boxing and is currently working towards a Masters in Magazine Journalism at Sheffield University. For more from George, find him on Twitter here or visit Georgestorrjournalism.com
Kieran Ahuja is a founder of 5WFootball and contributes regularly to the site. You can follow him on Twitter here.