OSAKA, Japan — The soccer participant’s aircraft was on the gate. Ahead of him stood his final probability at security.
The athlete, Ko Pyae Lyan Aung, had come to Japan with Myanmar’s nationwide group. On the sector, earlier than the primary match, he had flashed a gesture of defiance — the three-finger salute made well-known by “The Hunger Games” — in opposition to the army junta that had ousted his nation’s elected authorities. He was now afraid of what may occur if he returned house.
Several occasions, he had tried to break free from the group and declare asylum, and every time he had been caught. The immigration line on the Osaka airport supplied yet one more alternative. When an agent waved him ahead and requested for his passport, he offered his cellphone as a substitute. On it was a message in English and Japanese: “I don’t want to go back to Myanmar.”
The gambit labored. He can keep, at the very least for now. But whereas Mr. Pyae Lyan Aung’s case has riveted Japan and put strain on the federal government, his destiny could in the end hinge on two of probably the most politically delicate points in the nation at the moment: its hostile immigration system and its response to the Myanmar coup.
Few nations are much less hospitable to refugees than Japan, which settled simply 47 asylum seekers final yr, lower than 1 p.c of candidates. In latest months, the immigration system has grow to be a political battlefield after the loss of life of an emaciated Sri Lankan migrant in a detention cell.
At the identical time, the federal government has been below intense strain at house and overseas to do extra to dissuade Myanmar’s army because it has ruthlessly crushed protests in opposition to its Feb. 1 coup. But Japan, which has been a high investor in Myanmar and usually avoids rights points abroad, has been reluctant to make any strikes that may alienate the junta, parting methods with allies just like the United States which have imposed sanctions.
A conflict between protesters and safety forces in Yangon, Myanmar, in March.Credit…The New York Times
Mr. Pyae Lyan Aung’s case is probably going to elevate extra questions on Japan’s stance. A rising variety of athletes from Myanmar have refused to symbolize the nation at worldwide sporting occasions, arguing that to achieve this would danger legitimizing the army leaders. Myanmar’s participation this month in the Tokyo Olympics may grow to be one other flash level.
So far, Mr. Pyae Lyan Aung has stored principally quiet about politics, and his journey by means of the immigration system — in distinction to the expertise of so many refugees in Japan — has been easy. In May, the nation introduced emergency measures permitting residents of Myanmar who want to keep in Japan to apply for provisional visas. On June 22, Mr. Pyae Lyan Aung did so.
That day, reporters amassed exterior the Osaka immigration bureau, a grey submitting cupboard of a constructing in a weedy nook of town’s port, the place he had gone to submit his official asylum request.
He had lately realized that soccer gamers he knew in Myanmar had been killed whereas protesting, his lawyer mentioned, including that the brand new info would make Mr. Pyae Lyan Aung’s plea extra compelling.
As reporters shouted questions, a tattoo of a big eye peered out from the criminal of Mr. Pyae Lyan Aung’s elbow, unblinkingly surveying the scene.
After an interpreter started to relay his responses, one other international man out of the blue appeared in the doorways of the immigration middle, screaming “Save me!” in Japanese. He sprinted down the road, and officers, lanyards swinging from their necks, puffed out of the constructing in shut pursuit.
Myanmar’s nationwide group coaching at a stadium in Chiba, Japan, in May, earlier than a World Cup qualifier in opposition to Japan.Credit…Charly Triballeau/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Days earlier than, simply blocks from the place Mr. Pyae Lyan Aung now stood, he had been the immigrant attempting to flee.
He would fairly have made headlines for blocking kicks throughout his group’s World Cup qualifier in opposition to Japan, he mentioned throughout an interview in the slim Osaka rowhouse the place he now lives. But Myanmar misplaced, 10-Zero, and his defiant gesture made information as a substitute.
In the lead-up to the Japan journey, soccer gamers from Myanmar had begun brazenly expressing resistance to the regime. One grabbed worldwide consideration throughout a match in Malaysia when he celebrated a objective together with his personal three-finger salute.
Ten gamers later declared that they’d not play for the nationwide group. That adopted a resolution by a Myanmar swimmer primarily based in Australia to boycott the Olympics and name on the organizers to bar the Myanmar Olympic Committee. (The organizers mentioned that they had to keep out of politics.)
The soccer gamers’ walkout delayed the journey to Japan, and Myanmar’s embarrassed nationwide soccer affiliation pressured the remainder of the athletes to journey.
Before he left, Mr. Pyae Lyan Aung determined to make a assertion. He was annoyed and heartsick concerning the scenario at house, he mentioned, and felt betrayed when the Myanmar soccer affiliation didn’t distance itself from the junta.
Protesting in opposition to Myanmar’s coup exterior the Chiba stadium.Credit…Charly Triballeau/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
His second got here when his group lined up for the nationwide anthem earlier than its recreation in opposition to Japan’s nationwide group, referred to as Samurai Blue.
As information protection of his defiant gesture snowballed, supporters turned involved about his security. They reached out to U Aung Myat Win, an activist and restaurateur who fled from Myanmar to Japan in the 1990s. After years of being detained in the Japanese immigration system, Mr. Aung Myat Win had grow to be one of many few refugees to obtain asylum in the nation.
Over the years, he had gone to extraordinary lengths to assist different immigrants from Myanmar navigate life in Japan. He messaged Mr. Pyae Lyan Aung, arguing that going again house may very well be lethal, and requested him whether or not he wished to keep in Japan.
At first the athlete wasn’t positive. But earlier than lengthy he had determined to strive.
His group was below shut watch. Its administration was protecting tabs on the gamers, and Japan’s soccer federation had employed a personal safety agency to make sure that the boys didn’t break quarantine.
Mr. Aung Myat Win scouted attainable routes for Mr. Pyae Lyan Aung to slip out of his Osaka lodge. He would have to sneak previous his teammates and down a central financial institution of elevators or emergency stairs.
It proved too troublesome. After a number of failed makes an attempt, Mr. Aung Myat Win contacted an immigration lawyer specializing in asylum instances, Yoshihiro Sorano, who filed a grievance with the police saying that Mr. Pyae Lyan Aung was being held captive.
Mr. Pyae Lyan Aung finding out Japanese on the rowhouse the place he now lives.Credit…Shiho Fukada for The New York Times
Officers contacted the Japan Football Association, which assured them that the athlete was free to transfer round. The officers by no means spoke to him or visited the lodge, Mr. Sorano mentioned.
Asked concerning the scenario, the group mentioned that due to the federal government’s Covid-19 restrictions, it had employed personal safety to monitor all international groups in Japan, in addition to Japanese gamers who had come into contact with them. It mentioned it had not been in a position to verify whether or not there have been further restrictions on Mr. Pyae Lyan Aung’s motion.
Mr. Aung Myat Win and Mr. Sorano stored attempting to make escape plans, however journalists had begun gathering exterior the lodge, and the eye quickly made it not possible.
Before lengthy, Mr. Pyae Lyan Aung and the opposite gamers have been on a bus to the airport. Mr. Aung Myat Win adopted.
“When you get to immigration, tell them, ‘I don’t want to go home,’” he instructed Mr. Pyae Lyan Aung, who speaks little English and no Japanese. A supporter texted him the message in each languages to present the agent.
Now that his asylum utility has been filed, Mr. Pyae Lyan Aung is uncertain what’s subsequent. He has no job, has no Japanese language abilities and is unlikely to get assist from the federal government. He hopes to maintain taking part in soccer professionally, he mentioned, but when that doesn’t work out, he’ll do what he should to keep in Japan.
All he is aware of for positive is that — for now at the very least — he can’t go house.