Linking Manchester United with Myanmar
In September 2019, the British football club Manchester United signed a deal with Myanmar’s CB Bank, allowing the bank to launch a Man U branded debit card and offer its customers ‘special’ privileges such as discounted tours of the Old Trafford stadium.
But according to a 2019 United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) report, CB Bank was one of 45 companies and organisations in Myanmar that donated directly to the Myanmar military while it was engaged in ethnic cleansing operations against the Rohingya Muslim ethnic minority in September 2017.
In total, the military, known in Myanmar as the Tatmadaw, received $10 million in the form of private donations in the weeks following the beginning of this pogrom, with $35,714 coming directly from CB Bank.
Manchester United continues to proudly list CB Bank as its ‘official financial services provider for Myanmar’ on its website and even flew out former striker Dwight Yorke to inaugurate the partnership.
But it has never commented on CB Bank’s shady dealings with the Myanmar military, which is now in the process of brutally silencing pro-democracy protests since usurping control in a coup d’état on 1st February 2021.
Who's funding the genocide?
A complete list of the companies funding the Rohingya genocide, as the UN later labelled the military operations, was published in the aforementioned 2019 report on the commercial interests of the Tatmadaw.
In a news briefing that accompanied the report, the report authors stated that ‘the revenues the military earns from domestic and foreign business deals substantially enhances its ability to carry out gross violations of human rights with impunity’ and called for ‘concrete action’ to be taken ‘to address corporate responsibility to respect human rights in Myanmar.’
In response to a request from Ethical Consumer, CB Bank issued a statement that the donation to the Myanmar military was not for ‘operations’ against the Rohingya Muslims and claimed that the donation was ‘for the primary purpose of aiding the affected communities in the region’.
But in a speech at a ceremony on 1st September 2017, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, de facto leader of Myanmar following the 2021 coup, stated that the cash donations were also ‘for security personnel and state service personnel who risked their lives while shouldering national defence and security duties’.
He also denied the existence of a Rohingya ethnic identity, declaring that ‘our country has no Rohingya race,’ and argued that the Rohingya are foreign intruders who constitute a ‘long-standing’ problem that the government needs to ‘solve’.
Manchester United’s partner CB Bank is not the only business with ties to financiers of the Tatmadaw. According to the UN report numerous international brands, including Virginia Tobacco and French cement giant LaFargeHolcim, have all made deals with Myanmar companies that have military connections.
Some of these, such as Japanese beverage firm Kirin, have reassessed their dealings with Tatmadaw-affiliated companies following the recent coup.
But Manchester United has declined to comment on its links to CB Bank.
While the Manchester United Fan Page has posted on Facebook to say, “During this time of political turmoil, we stand by our brothers and sisters in Myanmar” (February 2), the club itself has not reinforced this show of solidarity with any tangible action.
The popularity of Man U in Myanmar cannot be overstated. Twenty years ago, when the Southeast Asian nation was a pariah state and its 54 million people lived under direct military rule, fans followed the team religiously.
General Than Shwe, the country’s ex-dictator, even toyed with the idea of buying the club for his son in 2008, and Myanmar’s countless ‘beer stations’ often fill to the brim during screenings of the club’s games.
With its global influence, Manchester United could send a strong message of corporate responsibility by following the lead of Kirin and terminating its partnership with backers of the Tatmadaw, such as CB Bank.
About the authors
Laurence Crumbie is a freelance journalist and the author of In Search of Myanmar: Travels through a Changing Land.
Christian Gilberti is an academic researcher and free-lance journalist. He has written for Southeast Asia Globe, Frontier Myanmar and The Mekong Review.