Back in 2016, the then Malaysian Youth and Sports Minister Khairy Jamaluddin had lobbied for the national football team to boycott the AFF Suzuki Cup due to co-host Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya Muslim minority.
It never happened because of the threat of sanction by the football governing body as well as the issue of the football competition at the KL Sea Games the following year being affected.
Eight years prior to that pro-democracy activists in Myanmar called for the world to boycott of the 2008 Beijing Olympics over what they said was China’s continuing support of Myanmar’s military dictatorship.
Not a single nation saw any merit in boycotting the Games and felt that the sports and politics should not mix.
Fast forward to 2021, and the military has once again saw it fit to overthrow an elected government, and calls for Myanmar to be sidelined from international sports is bound to be raised again by some quarters. Numerous protestors, some just youngsters, have lost their lives.
This also comes at a time when calls to boycott the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, due to China’s persecution of its Uyghur population, are also being voiced out.
With the Olympics coming up, and in terms of regional sports supremacy, the SEA Games in Hanoi later year, should the sports family put some pressure on the Myanmar military to let the democratic process be reinstated.
One common argument against such a move would be that sports boycotts have been historically ineffective. But neither has trade sanctions and slaps in the hands like closing down embassies.
Sports is powerful tool and holds a strong hold on all nations, be it the democratically or ruled by iron-fisted strongmen.
And it holds so much sway over most people that it is sanctimonious to stop it from taking place.
It is why the Malaysian government did not endorse the boycott of the Suzuki Cup or why England backed off from boycotting the last World Cup in Russia. That is also the reason as to why many sports are allowed to resume during the Covid-19 pandemic while many common workers struggling to make ends meet are unable to resume working.
That is also why there is so much of concern on the need for the Tokyo Olympics to take place when only a mere 27% of the city residents want the Olympics to go ahead as scheduled.
Can sporting sanction against Myanmar work? Not entirely, but the isolation can definitely help.
Trade sanctions are seen as a stronger route in recent times, but it has hardly made any impact when implemented. Even trade sanctions against countries like Iran and North Korea made little impact with countries making use of loopholes to maintain their business trades.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), is adhering to the groups stance of calling for dialogue, reconciliation for the return of normalcy. Malaysia itself is treating the coup in Myanmar as an internal affair and prefer to hands-off policy towards the political strife in Myanmar.
It is such limitations of the ASEAN that has seen a virtual non-existence of any form of concrete response from the body to the repressive political situation not only in Myanmar but other member countries in the region since its inception.
So to even think of the notion that Myanmar would be booted out of any sporting events, including the SEA Games is far-fetched.
With the International Olympic Committee (IOC) itself showing no inclination to use sports as a tool to against repressive nations, it is highly unlikely that a toothless ASEAN would even bother to force the SEA Games Federation (SEAGF) to kick Myanmar out of the regional Games.
The absence of the 65 countries in the USA-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics and the subsequent tit-for-tat boycott of the 1984 LA Olympics by the Russia led bloc turned out to be financial disasters for the IOC. It led to the IOC hiding behind the Olympic Charter in propagating that sports and politics should not mix.
So whether it is the persecution of the Uyghur or the Rohingya or the Palestinians or the Tibetans, or even the freedom seeking youngsters from Myanmar, sports is seen as above it all.
It does not matter that the powerful junta or dictatorial leaders are responsible for killing their own citizens, sports must be put on a pedestal that should not be soiled by it.
Sports should no longer be seen just as a pleasurable distraction, and excuse as being a medicine for tough times or even just as a tool for unity.
None of this matter when people are being murdered, massacred and their lives of the people are being upended for political expediency.
Sports can play a bigger role in ensuring a better future, but only when it itself is not seen as a political tool by the powerful.
It is the sad reason why even in Malaysia, the restart of the national football league or international sporting events are seen as more important than the restart of grassroot sports. It is the reason as to why professional sports administrators believe that their athletes and officials need the Covid-19 vaccine first before the others who are more deserving.
Like many of the professional stars in USA, who chose to boycott their own leagues, or chose to take a knee in support of racism and the killing of innocent blacks, it is time for athletes around the world to play a bigger and more meaningful role in fighting for social justice and peace.
The year-long pandemic has shown most of us, with the exception of some, that elite sports is not the most important feature of our daily lives. It is only those who are financially invested, who are adamant that the return of elite sports must be given priority.
But sports can play an important role in the betterment of the civil society, only if it chooses to take the moral path ahead.