Than Shwe had eyes for the Red Devils

One of the more extraordinary US cables published by Wikileaks this week has revealed that Burmese junta chief Than Shwe had last year considered a bid for British football club Manchester United.

The profligacy of the idea, first mooted in January 2009, was brought into sharp focus when it emerged that the $US1 billion bid, which would have secured him a 56 percent stake in the club, was considered shortly after cyclone Nargis, Burma’s most destructive natural disaster.

The money requested to provide basic aid for the 2.4 million survivors equalled the bid – an irony given that the junta was roundly condemned following the cyclone for refusing foreign aid and appearing to consider the $US1 billion sum not expendable for such a cause.

The English Premier League does have a ‘fit and proper persons’ clause that meant Than Shwe could have been barred from ownership, although this failed to stop local rival Manchester City from being bought by Abu Dhabi’s wealthy unelected rulers, or indeed by former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who has several corruption charges standing against him in Thailand.

The bid was apparently the idea of Than Shwe’s grandson, who is also thought to be a fan, but according to the cable the general thought it “could look bad” in the wake of Nargis. Instead, the cable, which appears to be from US charge d’affaires in Rangoon, Larry Dinger, suggests that the dictator ordered the creation of the Myanmar National League (MNL).

However the media director of the MNL, Soe Moe, told DVB that, “The idea [of setting up the Myanmar National League] had been around for a long time, perhaps 10 years back then. It sounds like a baseless rumour”.

The embassy’s source, whose name appears to have been removed from the cable for his own security, is quoted as saying: “When the Senior General asks someone to do something, you do it with no complaints.”

As a result, the national league was formed in 2009 at considerable cost, and comprises eight teams owned by cronies of the junta who were offered incentives such as mines or import licenses. Although all of the teams currently play in Rangoon, the cable suggests that by 2011 they will be based in their respective regions.

It also claims that the introduction of a football league to Burma may be for more than just sport. “Several have commented that it may be a way for the regime to distract the people from ongoing political and economic problems, or to divert their attention from criticism of the upcoming 2010 elections.”

Indeed the cable was sent on 12 June 2009, just over a month after US citizen John Yettaw made his 4 May swim to Aung San Suu Kyi’s lakeside residence. That incident occurred less than four weeks prior to her release date, and enabled the junta to extend the opposition icon’s detention past the recent elections, thereby destroying any possibility of her taking part.

And eleven days prior to her would-be release date, the MNL was launched. The cable considers the league a “huge success”, and claims that it attracts large television audiences and high attendance figures, despite ticket costs of around $US0.50  to $US1.00 – a steep price in a country where the average wage is little over $US200 per year.

Televised British football has also made a big impact in Burma, with satellite broadcasts of multiple leagues drawing crowds in their hundreds of thousands to teashops throughout the country. This comes after a decades-long ban on some sporting spectacles implemented by the previous junta.

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