Chelsea Football Club agrees 'ground-breaking' sponsorship deal with Burmese whisky firm
In the latest indication of the changes sweeping through Burma, Chelsea Football Club has agreed what it says is a ground-breaking sponsorship deal with one of the country's leading producers of whiskey.
In exchange, Grand Royal - produced by a tycoon who once had links to Burma's former military dictator - will be advertised using the Chelsea logo and images of the club's leading stars.
In a statement, Adrian New, managing director of Chelsea FC Asia said: "Chelsea Football Club [is] very excited to be able to announce a partnership between Europe's number one club and Burma's number one whisky brand...[We are] are delighted to have been able to agree this deal as the club has many millions of fans in the country. We know the Premier League is followed avidly, and this partnership will enable our supporters to engage more actively with the club."
Chelsea has declined to say how much the two-year deal is worth but the club believes that the democratic changes taking place in Burma and the easing of sanctions has created new business opportunities in a country that was once effectively off-limits.
Many Burmese love football. Indeed, one of the favourite pastimes for men in cities such as Rangoon - at least for those who can afford it - is to gather in bars and drink whiskey mixed with water while watching the Premier League and other international football. This will be the first time Chelsea has ever endorsed an "official whisky".
But Chelsea says the arrangement is not just about developing business. As part of its corporate social responsibility outreach, Chelsea will look to help develop Burma's local football league and to organise coaching sessions and even nutrition classes.
Grand Royal, reportedly one of Burma's most favoured whiskies, is the flagship brand of International Beverages Trading Company Limited (IBTC), which also produces Myanmar Beer and is owned by businessman Aung Moe Kyaw, who owns the local Okkthar United FC team. No-one from IBTC could today be contacted for comment.
Mr Kyaw was a founding member of the Myanmar National Football League in 2009 with eight teams representing different states. According to a US diplomatic cable released in 2010 by WikiLeaks, the league was established at the suggestion of a powerful businessman, Zaw Zaw, and the grandson of the then military ruler Than Shwe. Than Shwe's grandson had initially asked that the regime spend $1bn to buy Manchester United but the military strongman thought that setting up a professional league of its own was a cheaper option.
The cable said that select Burmese businessmen were told that Than Shwe had "chosen" them to be the owners of the new professional teams.
Asked why the businessmen would agree to such an arrangement, one source said: "When the the Senior General asks someone to do something, you do it with no complaints."
Yet the cable also noted that some team owners - Mr Kyaw among them - took their roles more seriously. He even sponsored the 2009 national cup final. Last year, Burmese activists in the US asked that Mr Kyaw's name be added to a list of the "regime's cronies" facing US sanctions because of their support to the regime but the request was not taken up.
Since the suspension of most Western trade and travel sanctions earlier this year, companies have been lining up to do business in Burma, where Chinese, Thai, Indian and South Korean firms have had a head-start of many years. The head of the purportedly civilian government, Thein Sein, has recently returned from a visit to the US where he gave an historic address before the UN.
In his speech, Thein Sein praised the efforts of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to bring democracy to his country. Burma's president acknowledged there were still many problems including poverty, ethnic conflict and the gap between rich and poor, but he added: "Within a short time, the people of Myanmar have been able to bring about amazing changes. They have been taking tangible, irreversible steps in the democratic reform process. Myanmar, is now ushering in a new era."
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