The revelation that Burma’s junta supremo had mulled over the purchase Manchester United in the wake of 2008’s cyclone Nargis is certainly among the more interesting of the leaked US diplomatic cables, but perhaps it’s not surprising. He joins a line of very disparate thinkers that see spectator sports as the opium of the masses; a means to pacify an angry nation and distract it from the troubles of the day. “It offers people something to pay attention to that’s of no importance,” leading US intellectual Noam Chomsky has said. “[It] keeps them from worrying about things that matter to their lives that they might have some idea of doing something about.”
According to the leak, Than Shwe would have stumped up $US1 billion to buy a majority share in the $US1.85 billion-valued English club, of which he and his grandson, along with much of the Asian world, are loyal aficionados. This would have come from a man who allocates 0.5 percent of his government budget to healthcare in a country where the average annual wage is little over $US200. Unlike Than Shwe, the club he was eyeing 5000 miles away has an estimated 90 million supporters globally, and this year Forbes ranked it second to the New York Yankees as the most valuable sports club in the world.
The combination of glitz, success and branding beamed out of Old Trafford appears to have rubbed off on the reclusive general, whose distinct lack of charisma or passion, save for himself, makes the disclosure all the more bizarre. While the club may have been sized up as a gift to his grandson, whom it is rumoured first prompted the 77-year-old to lodge the bid, or indeed a feeble attempt to ‘internationalise’ a country whose ruin Than Shwe is largely responsible for, theorists would suggest otherwise: when, as one source put it, “the senior general thought that sort of expenditure could look bad” in the wake of his failure to provide aid for cyclone victims, he ordered the development of a domestic football league in Burma, one that has fuelled gambling, provided added business opportunities for his cronies, and quenched the thirst of Burma’s die-hard football fans.
It is the latter that eyes have turned to, given the timing of its creation: one year after the cyclone, and as plans were being hatched to sentence the popular opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to another spell under house arrest. Around 140,000 people died as a result of Nargis, many from treatable illnesses that broke out in the days after 3 May 2008 when the junta infamously refused offers of foreign aid. That the purchase of Manchester United would have looked bad is a no-brainer, given some estimates that the recovery bill would have equalled that of the bid. But the creation of a league – Than Shwe’s ‘apology’ to, and show of affection for, the people – was perhaps a signal that he had subscribed to the old adage of sport’s dual purpose.
Julius Caesar was the first prominent head of state to turn this theory into action: ‘Panem et Circenses’, or ‘bread and circuses’, proffered that various pleasures and spectacles – chariot races, gladiator fights, the distribution of food, and so – could both keep a population peaceful, and give them an almost superficial platform to express themselves publicly. He considered it a formula – a political strategy – for the general well-being of his people: they are free make themselves heard, but only in an environment separated from the policy-making arena.
Others claim indeed that sports can be a powerful tool for a country’s elite to garner political support. Cheering on a competitor is “a way of building up irrational attitudes of submission to authority and group cohesion behind leadership elements – in fact, it’s training in irrational jingoism”, says Chomsky. That suggestion was supported by a survey of Arab-Palestinian football fans in Israel that found that “the more Arab citizens are present in the [Israeli] soccer stadium, the more they are likely to vote for Zionist parties in the parliamentary elections and are less likely to be proud of their Palestinian identity”.
This stance inevitably has its detractors on both sides of the political spectrum: prominent leftwing Uruguayan commentator Eduardo Galeano – who reserves much of his colourful vitriol for the despotic rulers he grew up around – says he was inspired to write by Diego Maradona, while boxer Muhammad Ali become a unifying figure between black and white during America’s civil rights movement. Fans of these two would argue against being pacified by sports.
It’s perhaps the ‘watch and don’t play’ dictum of spectator sports that Than Shwe hoped would translate to the political realm. Popularity ratings for the ageing hermit would place him in the relegation zone of the proverbial fourth division, so better to keep citizens on the sidelines as his game – the elections, Suu Kyi’s house arrest, and the day-to-day rape and pillage of a country and its psyche – ploughs on. Were it not for the fact that he alone can galvanise a population in the opposite direction, then the opiates might prove overpowering, but any sinister intentions behind his football showboating are unlikely to find their target in Burma.