OSAKA, Japan — The plane carrying the soccer player was parked at the airport. His last chance at safety lay ahead of him.
Ko Pyae Lyan Aung, the athlete, had travelled to Japan with Myanmar’s national team. On the field, before the first match, he made a defiant gesture against the military junta that had deposed his country’s elected government — the three-finger salute made famous by “The Hunger Games.” He was now terrified of what might happen if he went back home.
He’d tried several times to flee the team and seek asylum, but he’d always been apprehended. The immigration line at Osaka Airport provided another opportunity. When an agent motioned him forward and asked for his passport, he instead handed over his phone. It said in English and Japanese, “I don’t want to go back to Myanmar.”
The gambit was successful. He can stay for the time being. While Mr. Pyae Lyan Aung’s case has captivated Japan and put pressure on the government, his fate may ultimately be determined by two of the country’s most politically sensitive issues: its hostile immigration system and its response to the Myanmar coup.
Few countries are less welcoming to refugees than Japan, which accepted only 47 asylum seekers last year, accounting for less than 1% of all applicants. Following the death of an emaciated Sri Lankan migrant in a detention cell in recent months, the immigration system has become a political battleground.
Simultaneously, the government has been under intense pressure at home and abroad to do more to dissuade Myanmar’s military, which has ruthlessly crushed protests against its Feb. 1 coup. However, Japan, which has been a major investor in Myanmar and generally avoids human rights issues abroad, has been hesitant to make any moves that might alienate the junta, splitting with allies such as the US that have imposed sanctions.
The case of Mr. Pyae Lyan Aung is likely to raise more questions about Japan’s stance. A growing number of Myanmar athletes have refused to represent the country at international sporting events, claiming that doing so would legitimise the military leaders. Myanmar’s participation in the Tokyo Olympics later this month could become another flashpoint.
Mr. Pyae Lyan Aung has remained mostly silent about politics thus far, and his passage through the immigration system has been relatively smooth, in contrast to the experience of so many refugees in Japan. In May, the country announced emergency measures that allowed Myanmar citizens who wanted to stay in Japan to apply for provisional visas. Mr. Pyae Lyan Aung did so on June 22.
That day, journalists gathered outside the Osaka immigration bureau, a grey filing cabinet of a building in a weedy corner of the city’s port, where he had gone to submit his official asylum request.
His lawyer stated that he had recently learned that soccer players he knew in Myanmar had been killed while protesting, and that the new information would strengthen Mr. Pyae Lyan Aung’s case.
As reporters yelled questions, a tattoo of a huge eye peered out from the crook of Mr. Pyae Lyan Aung’s elbow, surveying the scene unblinkingly.
After an interpreter began relaying his responses, another foreign man burst through the immigration center’s doors, screaming “Save me!” in Japanese. He dashed down the street, and officials puffed out of the building, lanyards slung around their necks, in hot pursuit.
He had been the immigrant attempting to flee just a few blocks from where Mr. Pyae Lyan Aung now stood.
During an interview in the narrow Osaka rowhouse where he now lives, he said he would have rather made headlines for blocking kicks during his team’s World Cup qualifier against Japan. However, Myanmar lost 10-0, and his defiant gesture made headlines instead.
Soccer players from Myanmar began openly expressing opposition to the regime in the run-up to the Japan trip. During a match in Malaysia, one player drew international attention when he celebrated a goal with his own three-finger salute.
Ten players later declared that they would not represent their country. This was in response to a decision by an Australian-based Myanmar swimmer to boycott the Olympics and call on the organisers to ban the Myanmar Olympic Committee. (Organizers stated that they had to stay out of politics.)
The soccer players’ walkout caused the trip to Japan to be postponed, and Myanmar’s embattled national soccer association put pressure on the remaining athletes to travel.
Mr. Pyae Lyan Aung decided to make a statement before leaving. He was frustrated and heartbroken about the situation at home, and he felt betrayed when the Myanmar soccer association did not distance itself from the junta, he said.
His moment came before his team’s game against Japan’s national team, known as Samurai Blue, when they lined up for the national anthem.
As word spread about his defiant gesture, supporters began to worry about his safety. They contacted U Aung Myat Win, a Myanmar-born activist and restaurateur who fled to Japan in the 1990s. Mr. Aung Myat Win was one of the few refugees to be granted asylum in Japan after years of detention in the Japanese immigration system.
He had gone to extraordinary lengths over the years to assist other Myanmar immigrants in navigating life in Japan. He messaged Mr. Pyae Lyan Aung, arguing that returning home could be dangerous, and asked if he wanted to stay in Japan.
Initially, the athlete was unsure. But he soon decided to give it a shot.
His team was being closely monitored. Its management was keeping an eye on the players, and Japan’s soccer federation had hired a private security firm to make sure the men didn’t break quarantine.
Mr. Aung Myat Win scouted possible escape routes for Mr. Pyae Lyan Aung from his Osaka hotel. He’d have to slip past his teammates and down a central bank of elevators or emergency stairwells.
It turned out to be too difficult. After several failed attempts, Mr. Aung Myat Win contacted Yoshihiro Sorano, an immigration lawyer who specialises in asylum cases, who filed a complaint with the police alleging that Mr. Pyae Lyan Aung was being held captive.
Officers contacted the Japan Football Association, who assured them that the athlete could move freely. According to Mr. Sorano, the officers never spoke to him or came to the hotel.
When asked about the situation, the organisation stated that, due to the government’s Covid-19 restrictions, it had hired private security to monitor all foreign teams in Japan, as well as Japanese players who had come into contact with them. It stated that it was unable to confirm whether Mr. Pyae Lyan Aung’s movement was restricted further.
Mr. Aung Myat Win and Mr. Sorano continued to plot their escape, but journalists had gathered outside the hotel, making it impossible.
Mr. Pyae Lyan Aung and the other players were soon on their way to the airport on a bus. Mr. Aung Myat Win came next.
“When you get to immigration, tell them, ‘I don’t want to go home,’” he instructed Mr. Pyae Lyan Aung, who spoke little English and no Japanese. To show the agent, a supporter texted him the message in both languages.
Mr. Pyae Lyan Aung is unsure what will happen next now that his asylum application has been filed. He has no job, no Japanese language skills, and is unlikely to receive government assistance. He hopes to continue playing professional soccer, but if that doesn’t work out, he will do whatever it takes to stay in Japan.
All he knows for sure is that — for now at least — he can’t go home.