A Myanmar national soccer goalkeeper applied for refugee status in Japan on Tuesday after expressing fear for his life for making a three-finger salute in protest at the military coup in his country during a recent World Cup qualifier near Tokyo, his lawyer said.
Pyae Lyan Aung, who refused to return home with his teammates last week after the soccer match, submitted an application with the Osaka Regional Immigration Services Bureau, according to the lawyer.
The immigration authority in Osaka is expected to promptly process his application as he will most likely face persecution by the military if he returns to his home country.
"I am relieved. I hope I will be granted" refugee status, he told reporters.
Pyae Lyan Aung also filed a request to switch his visa status to a foreigner who is allowed to engage in "designated activities," which permits him to stay and work in the country for six months, based on an emergency measure of the government to save Myanmar residents in Japan from being deported.
The lawyer said multiple companies have already made contact, telling him they are interested in hiring him.
"What I want to do most is playing soccer as a professional. It would be difficult for me to do other (short-term) jobs because of language barriers," Pyae Lyan Aung said.
He also expressed his concerns over Tuesday's clash between the Myanmar military and anti-coup forces in Mandalay, central Myanmar.
The 27-year-old entered Japan last month as a member of the Myanmar national soccer team with a visa for short-term stay not exceeding 90 days.
During the match between Japan and Myanmar in Chiba in late May, the goalkeeper, who came on as a substitute, raised three fingers of his right hand with "WE NEED JUSTICE" written on them in English while Myanmar's national anthem was being played. The salute has been used as a show of resistance in Myanmar to the Feb. 1 coup.
As the team was about to leave Japan after playing two further World Cup qualifiers, he told immigration authorities at Kansai airport in the western prefecture of Osaka that he wanted to remain in Japan and that he had decided not to board his flight.
His move comes despite Japan being known for granting refugee status to only a fraction of applicants.
Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa said Friday that Japan would "appropriately handle Myanmar people in light of changes in the situation (in their country)," but declined to comment on a specific case.
The Justice Ministry has said it will allow Myanmar residents who wish to remain in Japan to extend their stays as an emergency step. The measure also covers people from Myanmar seeking refugee status in Japan.
The coup ousted the democratically elected government of civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and put her under house arrest, while other prominent politicians were also detained, fueling protests across the Southeast Asian nation.
As of Monday, 873 people including peaceful protesters had been killed by the junta, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a rights group tracking deaths and detainees in Myanmar.