Three Fingers for Freedom: Myanmarese Goalkeeper Pyae Lyan Aung’s Path to Asylum in JapanPolitics Sports
Players call out to each other in Burmese as they race up and down a small field in the heart of Shinjuku. Pyae Lyan Aung, a former goalkeeper for Myanmar’s national soccer team, blocks a shot and passes the ball to a waiting teammate, setting in motion a counterattack. Although the other Burmese players are good, the goalie is clearly their superior.
The team is the Myanmar Football Club. Founded in 2000 by exiled Burmese soccer player Han Sein, it is made up of Burmese players residing in Japan.
Practice is held every Sunday, followed by a meal in a nearby park or restaurant. On this particular day, more than 20 Burmese have gathered to connect over chicken soup and noodle dishes prepared by fellow expat and fans of the team. Pyae Lyan Aung talks with his friends; for the group, weekends are times to discuss the hardships they encounter living in Japan. Some do not even play soccer and come solely for the conversation.
In May 2021, Pyae Lyan Aung’s life changed when he raised a three-finger salute in protest against the military takeover of his country as the Burmese national anthem played ahead of a FIFA World Cup qualifying match against Japan. Facing possible retribution for speaking out, he chose to stay in Japan and was later granted asylum by the Japanese government.
Settling in Yokohama, he supported himself by doing part-time work in the transport industry while continuing to train. He was certain that the coup in Myanmar would be overturned in three to four months and that he would be able to return home shortly after that. But the ensuing civil war has only intensified, making the prospect of a homecoming anytime soon less and less likely.
Thrilling Crowds at Charity Matches
In late October 2022, he moved from Yokohama to Tokyo, settling in Takadanobaba in Shinjuku with the intent of finding permanent work. The same month, Pyae Lyan Aung also participated in the Federal Cup, a futsal tournament held by Burmese residents of Japan to raise funds for efforts in their home country. Although he was the goalkeeper, he fired long-range shots at the opponent’s goal, thrilling the crowd.
Charity tournaments of this type increased exponentially after the coup d’état of February 2021. In this particular tournament, 45 men’s and women’s teams competed, and over ¥1 million was raised through contributions by sponsors and participants. “There is no question that this level of enthusiasm is due to the presence of Pyae Lyan Aung,” noted Han Sein.
Pyae Lyan Aung’s Facebook posts are dominated by news from Myanmar. Recently he shared videos and other posts detailing atrocious acts of oppression perpetrated by the Armed Forces of Myanmar against citizens. Among these were graphic photographs of aerial bombing victims. In Japan, he makes media appearances, gives talks, and speaks at demonstrations held by Burmese residents. “The situation in Myanmar is getting worse and worse,” he said at a recent event. “The other day a school was attacked by a helicopter and many children were killed and injured. I want the Japanese public to know what is actually happening.”
Feeling of Guilt
After settling in Japan, Pyae Lyan Aung set out to restart his professional career. When he initially refused to return to his country, he had no plans for his future and never imagined that he could play soccer in Japan. It was Kimura Yukihiko, a nonfiction author and supporter of Burmese in Japan, who enabled him to return to the sport in Japan. Kimura used his connections to arrange a meeting with J3 side Yokohama Soccer and Culture Club, a team that includes “world peace through soccer” among its mottos.
YSCC first agreed to take on the goalkeeper as an apprentice player. Pyae Lyan Aung hoped to use his position to inspire others from Myanmar, but he found the level of play in the third-tier of Japan’s J. League to be extremely demanding. “If Myanmar’s national team played YSCC, they’d probably lose,” he once declared following a practice session.
Negotiations with the team eventually led to Pyae Lyan Aung signing with the YSCC’s affiliate team competing in the F. League, Japan’s professional futsal league.
He started off as a reserve goalkeeper, needing first to demonstrate his skills to earn a spot in the starting lineup. Although futsal is similar to soccer, the style of play differs significantly, and Pyae Lyan Aung faced the difficult task of quickly learning the ins and outs of the game in order to make the cut. However, for several months he was unable to practice regularly as he struggled with the emotional duress caused by the ongoing turmoil in his home country. Unsurprisingly, he did not make the roster for the first game after joining his new team.
The strain on his emotional state steadily increased as the situation in Myanmar deteriorated and more civilians were killed by the armed forces. In one post-practice interview, Pyae Lyan Aung cried when he asked about conditions in his home country.
He was also struggling with the demands of life in Japan. Every day he would get up at four in the morning and head to practice, after which he would go to his job at a factory. After coming home, he would eat dinner and then study Japanese until going to bed. With only a little more than four hours of sleep each night, he found it hard to raise his performance on the playing field.
In November 2021, Pyae Lyan Aung finally got his chance to play when he was put into a game against Bardral Urayasu with 10 minutes remaining in the second half. Down by four goals, he let a shot by almost immediately after coming off the bench. Reeling from the shock, he then let another slip by, putting YSCC six goals behind. Disappointed by his performance, his first and only for the team, Pyae Lyan Aung found it hard to attend practice anymore.
“At the end of the year I knew that my heart wasn’t in it,” Pyae Lyan Aung admitted later. “I couldn’t shake the guilt I had over playing futsal and living a life of freedom while my friends were hiding underground and resisting the military takeover.”
After the F. League season wrapped up in February 2022, Pyae Lyan Aung posted a message of gratitude to everyone at YSCC on his Facebook page. He had decided not to renew his contract, choosing instead to hand up his soccer shoes for good.
A Symbol of Solidarity
I developed a personal connection with Pyae Lyan Aung from covering him during efforts by Burmese in Japan to rescue him after he raised the three-finger salute.
At the time, many people in Myanmar decried the national soccer team for what they saw as representing the country under military rule. On the day of the game, Burmese living in Japan were planning to hold a demonstration against the squad. It was then that Pyae Lyan Aung decided to take a stand against the military government and show that he was with the Burmese people by raising the salute, in spite of the danger.
As the match against Japan was a World Cup qualifier, his action drew media attention, bringing with it repercussions far beyond his expectations. Burmese in Japan were astonished by what he had done, and despite paying him respect, there was serious concern about what might happen to him. A number of people contacted him in an attempt to convince him not to return to Myanmar. This set into motion a series of events that led Pyae Lyan Aung to quit the national team.
Executives at the Myanmar Football Federation reassured him that no disciplinary action would be taken and that he should return home. However, his supporters discouraged him from retuning to Myanmar. Caught in the middle, Pyae Lyan Aung was unsure of what to do. He finally decided it was better to stay in Japan after a friend told him that he would be in danger if he went back, reasoning that he could always return once democracy was reestablished.
One Last Chance
Efforts to rescue Pyae Lyan Aung got underway after Myanmar’s final qualifying match against Tajikistan on June 15, also held in Japan. Aung Myat Win, a Burmese living in Osaka, devised a plan to whisk Pyae Lyan Aung away by car following the match, before anyone would notice he was gone. However, the plan failed due to the intense scrutiny the goalkeeper was under. That night, Japanese attorney Sorano Yoshihiro determined that Pyae Lyan Aung was being confined against his will and filed a complaint with the Osaka Prefectural Police.
The media had descended upon the hotel where Pyae Lyan Aung was staying. I had come to Osaka and was watching developments. The journalists on site were discussing how to cover the story in a less conspicuous way so as to reduce the danger to Pyae Lyan Aung, including backing off until the issue had been settled.
The following day, the Osaka Prefectural Police still had made no move. Right up until he was about to leave the hotel for Kansai International Airport, supporters were on the phone with Pyae Lyan Aung trying to figure out a way get him free. With the Burmese officials keeping him under such strict guard, success was a long shot. Discouraged, Pyae Lyan Aung got on the bus to the airport and started contacting his supporters to say he was on his way home.
His supporters had not yet given up, though. Using their connections, they got into contact with Pyae Lyan Aung’s friends, who started sending him messages of encouragement over the phone and via text messages. When Pyae Lyan Aung arrived at the security screening area at the airport, I yelled out to him, “Never give up!” He put his hands together in a gesture of appreciation and passed through the security gate.
At this point, the supporters that had gathered at the airport felt that all was lost. Unexpectedly, though, a call came through from an immigration official explaining that Pyae Lyan Aung had been taken to a holding area. According to the officer, Pyae Lyan Aung had told the passport control official that he did not want to return to Myanmar. Later, he explained his actions this way: “I had lost all hope because I felt that there was no escape. But then I realized that I might have one more chance and I took it.”
It has now been a year and a half since those dramatic events, and the situation in Myanmar remains dire. Pyae Lyan Aung is still unable to return home and his daily life in Japan is anything but easy. Still, he believes that he has a role to play in ensuring that democracy takes root in Myanmar so that he can someday return to his homeland.
Following the Myanmar Football Club winning a charity futsal match in October 2022, Pyae Lyan Aung and his teammates posed for a commemorative photo. In a show of solidarity, everyone raised the three-finger salute.
(Originally written in Japanese. Banner photo: Pyae Lyan Aung directing his teammates during practice. All photographs © Kitazumi Yūki unless otherwise noted.)