You can see the glittering spires of Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Towers from the threadbare football pitch that the Rohingya Football Club calls home.
Under a self-designed RFC flag, Rohingya men, most of them undocumented refugees from Myanmar’s western state of Rakhine now living in Malaysia, crowd around a chain-link fence to watch as their sons and brothers play pick-up in the sparse grass.
Mohammed Faruk, RFC’s starting striker and an unofficial spokesman for the club, says that they are a “national” team, representing both the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya still living under apartheid-like conditions in Myanmar and the diaspora that stretches from the United States to Saudi Arabia to here in Malaysia. He helped found the team in early 2015 as a way to enhance identity among one of the world’s largest stateless populations through sport.
As practice begins, he pulls on a pink Rohingya jersey emblazoned with his name on the back and jumps to his feet. Chasing after a loose ball, Faruk disappears into the beautiful game for an hour or so.
Later, he tells me something so politically impractical he can’t help but grin: the Rohingya Football Club wants to play a match against a Myanmar national side.
“Let’s say, if they will have a match with us, we will play friendly,” he says, referring to the nation that officially refuses to recognize his people and stands accused of attempting to exterminate them. “We are not aggressive, we are not terrorists. We are friendly. We want peace.”
The very act of calling themselves “Rohingya” is a political statement for the ethnic Muslim minority in the majority-Buddhist Myanmar. Playing a game against a national team? “I don’t think so,” said U Ye Naing Win, whose Burmese-language magazine Myanmar Special Media has been covering football exclusively since 2010. “The name Rohingya is really sensitive.”
No kidding: Myanmar state media won’t even print the word. The government has traditionally labeled the group as illegal Bengali immigrants, never mind the fact that records of Rohingya settlement in the area date back to at least the colonial era and as early as the seventh century. Ever since a military junta took power in 1962, the former British colony has long disenfranchised the ethnic minority. In 1982, General Ne Win’s Burmese Nationality Law officially declared the Rohingya “non-nationals,” laying the groundwork for what, decades later, Human Rights Watch would characterize as “crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing,” and some experts consider an ongoing genocide.
Mohammed Faruk, RFC’s unofficial spokesman and starting striker. Photo by R.J. Vogt
With statelessness has come persecution, and even though the country is no longer considered a military dictatorship, the plight of the Rohingya has not improved. Faruk and many of his teammates fled by boat after widespread violence and anti-Muslim riots erupted in 2012. They became statistics in what the UN High Commissioner for Refugees later estimated was a mass exodus of 86,000 people in two years. An additional 74,000 Rohingya have been driven across the border to Bangladesh since October 2016, when the Myanmar military, reportedly responding to attacks on border police, began carrying out scorched-earth “counter-insurgency” operations in northern Rakhine State. Testimony gathered from refugees by the UN includes many accounts of assault and rape, with nearly half of those interviewed claiming someone in their own family had been killed.
Last month, the UN Human Rights Council issued a resolution calling for investigations into the alleged abuses during military operations, which government officials have dismissed. The new head of Myanmar’s democratic government, Nobel Peace Prizewinner and human rights advocate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, has stood silent, and the international community has so far been unable or unwilling to hold the country accountable for its treatment of the Rohingya.
“There is, alas, no cheery prognosis for the Rohingya in Myanmar, nor is there any evidence that the arc of international organization is bending toward a norm of more robust civilian protection,” wrote David Simon, director of the Genocide Studies Program at Yale’s MacMillan Center, earlier this year.
Back at the RFC’s field in Malaysia, a player named Abdullah, wearing mirrored Ray-Ban knockoffs and chewing on a wad of betel nut, says he escaped on a human trafficking boat back in 2012. He bounced around the Bay of Bengal for four months, from Thailand to India, back to Thailand and eventually into Malaysia, where he still has yet to earn official refugee status with the UN. He says it was a nightmarish journey, but he’s more worried about family still residing in the primary region of the military’s crackdown against anyone perceived to be a “Rohingya insurgent.”
“I thought they were going to kill me,” Abdullah says, remembering the day he fled a Myanmar military attack on his village. “My mother told me to get out of the country, so I saw a boat with many people in it, and I swam to it, and I went with them.”
The whole experience seems very distant as Abdullah laces up and begins juggling one of the balls. He says he works as an electrician now, doing odd jobs around town where he can. Playing for RFC and watching Barcelona highlights are his only hobbies; Luis Suarez is his favorite player.
Facing off against a team from Myanmar would be cool, he says.
Practice is held once a week, normally on Sundays. The team has 25 players on the roster, with a waiting list three times as long. Most of the men are day laborers in their twenties, scraping a living off the underbelly of Malaysia’s job market. In the amateur-level DD Social League, RFC sports a record of 5-6-4, respectable if not league leading, especially considering most of the players arrive fresh from jobs such as construction and street cleaning.
Club records at the office of Muhammed Noor, one of the team’s co-founders and chief benefactors—and the CEO and founder of Rvision, the world’s only Rohingya news network—show that the team previously amassed a record of 28-3, mostly in unofficial matches against smaller Rohingya teams in other Malaysian states. Although those squads also featured Rohingya players, Noor says RFC is the only true “national” team, with players from various villages within Rakhine State and others representing communities throughout the world.
Muhammed Noor, one of the team’s co-founders and chief benefactors. Photo by R.J. Vogt
“The Rohingya have been promoted as very poor, as refugees,” he says. “So we said, ‘Let’s not cry all the time. Let’s put some people together, some youngsters together. Let’s bring some hope.'”
Together with Faruk and coach Dildar, Noor founded RFC in 2015. He offers some international clout and business experience to the team. Born in Saudi Arabia after his parents fled northern Rakhine in the 1970s, he went on to get a master’s in computer science at SEGi in Kuala Lumpur, became a platform engineer for Malaysia’s Petronas oil company, and launched the ambitious Rvision TV channel in 2012.
His media network provides Rohingya-language cultural and religious programming, talk shows, news, and history, operating a satellite provider over the Middle East that broadcasts to more than 100 countries and distributing content via Facebook and YouTube. They also share coverage of the Rohingya Football Club’s matches, trying to foster some semblance of hope for a people whose identity has long been defined by hopelessness. YouTube analytics show viewers in the Middle East, Bangladesh, and Myanmar. Noor estimates there are as many as three million Rohingya around the world tuning in.
“You know, we are not just poor people begging everywhere on the street,” Noor says, reclining in a chair at his spacious office at Rvision headquarters in Kuala Lumpur. “We have some talent. Why don’t you just give us the opportunity to show what talent we have?”
Though he recognizes a match with a Myanmar team sounds far-fetched, Noor believes it could be a step toward larger acceptance within Myanmar. He has spent thousands of dollars—his own money—in grounds fees and bus rentals for the RFC since its inception.
“The ultimate goal is get recognition. Not for RFC, because RFC is a vehicle,” he says. “Recognition for the larger Rohingya. We want to play—not a challenge, [but] at least a friendly match. That could be the beginning of recognition. We start from somewhere.”
The chair of Myanmar’s Football Federation, U Zaw Zaw, is a formidable businessman, with holdings in rubber plantations, luxury resorts, and one of the nation’s largest banks; until recently, he was blacklisted by the U.S. as part of sanctions against the military junta. According to an MFF statement from September 2016, he has spent more than K$ 19.4 billion (US$ 14.3 million) supporting the game since becoming federation president 12 years ago.
Getting a meeting with Zaw Zaw to ask him about potentially playing a Rohingya team turned out to be challenging. His personal assistant answered my call and seemed interested in arranging an interview—up until I mentioned the word “Rohingya,” at which point he politely agreed to ask U Zaw Zaw before terminating the call. He never responded to me again.
The spokesperson for the Myanmar Football Federation, Zaw Minn Htike, also showed initial responsiveness before turning a cold shoulder at mention of “Rohingya,” thereafter refusing multiple calls and declining an in-person interview at the MFF office.
Rohingya men watch their national soccer team practice. Photo by R.J. Vogt
Kyaw Zin Hlaing, the lead sports reporter at The Myanmar Times, one of two Myanmar English-language dailies, literally laughed out loud when I asked what he thought about the chances of a Myanmar national team even entertaining the idea of a matchup against the Rohingya Football Club.
Myanmar Special Media’s Ye Naing Win said that even a club team could not be bothered: “Their players are tired between [playing] national team and clubs.”
When I called Faruk to tell him that no Myanmar football officials would even discuss the possibility of playing his team, he had an interesting theory about it.
“It makes us sad, but [the reason] may be that they are scared to play with us,” he said. “That’s why they refuse to respond.”
For now, the RFC know that their chances of recognition are slim, at least back home, but that isn’t stopping them from continuing to pursue recognition elsewhere around the world.
Through an Australian nonprofit called The Kick Project, the club recently became the benefactors of a US$ 12,200 grant from the Australian diplomatic mission in Kuala Lumpur. Kick Project’s founder and director James Rose says that when he heard about the club’s mission to build identity through sport, he felt it would make the perfect pilot program for his nonprofit.
“Obviously what they’ve been going through is pretty extreme,” Rose says. “What the idea is, why we want to use sport, is it’s a very small-scale way for people to gather themselves…. It provides a focal point for the [Rohingya refugee] community. It breaks down barriers and builds bridges without [people] having to think too politically.”
Rose traveled to Kuala Lumpur in February to make advance payments on field reservations, deliver new jerseys to the squad, and scope out locations for a community sports facility. He’s deemed the idea a “sports hub,” and imagines a safe meeting place and distribution center for Rohingya children to access sports equipment—literally a “ball library.” He also administered the grant toward the purchase of an old blue-and-yellow bus for the team and its fans to travel to road games.
The Kick Project is already working on a spin-off RFC for women, and Rose says a survey at the Rohingya Women Development Network in Kuala Lumpur found interest in badminton, netball, and judo.
“We’re gonna help them work on that this year,” Rose says. “The sports club, the locker rooms, also a place for them to socialize as well.”
Challenges remain for Faruk and his teammates. As illegal immigrants in Malaysia, they have no access to state education, healthcare, or official work permits, and as one of the world’s largest stateless populations, they have no home to return to.
But they do have new jerseys, a fresh design that eliminated the individual names on the back of the shirts. Now it’s just one name, one identity, spelled out between their shoulders: Rohingya.
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