Myanmar detains Japanese journalist who covered protest

Release Toru Kubota screenshot

Rally attendee in Tokyo holds a sign demanding the release of Kubota Toru. Screenshot from MizzimaTV YouTube channel.

Japanese documentary filmmaker and journalist Kubota Toru was arrested in Yangon, Myanmar on July 30 while covering an anti-junta protest.

Myanmar's military dictatorship charged Kubota with incitement and violations of visa and immigration rules. After the start of his trial on August 16, authorities said they are considering the filing of additional charges against the journalist for violating the country’s electronic laws.

Kubota is reportedly detained at Myanmar's notorious Insein prison. His Twitter account has remained inactive since before his detainment. So far, various groups and individuals have called for the immediate release of Kubota.

Kubota has previously worked with Yahoo! News Japan, Vice Japan, and Al Jazeera English, and has also made several documentary films on the situation of Rohingya, a persecuted ethnic group that is not recognized by Myanmar.

After grabbing power in a coup d'état in February 2021, the Myanmar military restricted news coverage in the country. Scores of journalists have so far been arrested for allegedly supporting pro-democracy forces. Kubota is the fifth foreign journalist arrested by the junta. Kitazumi Yuki, another Japanese filmmaker, was detained for 25 days before his release in May 2021.

Following the military coup in Myanmar in 2021 and subsequent violence, the Japanese government publicly promised to cut ties with the country. However, deep ties remain. Japanese corporations continue to invest in Myanmar, while Japan continues to provide training to Myanmar's military.

The Japan-Myanmar Association, based in Tokyo, has declined to comment about Kubota's detention and other human rights abuses while continuing to promote investment in the military dictatorship.

A Japanese member of parliament, Watanabe Hiromichi, visited Myanmar on August 12 and met with members of the military clique who rule the country, including Min Aung Hlain, who serves commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and as unelected head of government.

In a Facebook post, Watanabe said he was optimistic Kubota would be released soon:

[…] 今回の訪問の最大の目的は、ミャンマーで拘束されている久保田徹さんの即時解放に向けてミンアウンフライン暫定首相に直談判するためです。

[…] The main purpose of my visit was to negotiate directly with Interim Prime Minister Min Aung Hlaing for the immediate release of Mr. Toru Kubota, who is detained in Myanmar. This is the most serious task I have been faced with in the twenty years I have been connected to Myanmar. Myanmar's interim prime minister [Min Aung Hlain] said that Kubota would be released in the near future, and that [Min Aung Hlain] would inform me about the date and time at a later date. I believe Kubota will be released soon. In addition, the current situation in Yangon and Naypyidaw [the capital of Myanmar] seems to be peaceful.

It is unclear whether public demands for the dropping of charges against Kubota would proceed, however. Following Watanabe's visit, the Myanmar junta also said it was considering further charges against Kubota.

Uchiyama Naoki, a colleague of Kubota, initiated an online petition urging the Japanese government to secure the immediate freedom of the filmmaker. He also clarified that Kubota’s documentary focuses on the “loneliness of a Burmese man” and denies that it deals with “political agitation.” According to Uchiyama's petition:

The purpose of his visit to Myanmar was to film a documentary which he has been working on for several years and it is NOT for the political agitation. Toru has traveled to Myanmar more than a dozen times for interviews and the detailed plans were always made in advance.

PEN International groups in many countries have joined the Japan's PEN chapter in demanding the Myanmar government to free Kubota and other journalists who are detained for simply fulfilling their work. Kirino Natsuo, president of the International PEN Japan Pen Club, said:

We call for freedom of expression and the protection of journalists in Myanmar and abroad. And we urge the Japanese Government and the international community to take immediate action to ensure the safety of Mr. Kubota.

There have have been public demonstrations in Japan in support of Kubota, and to demand his release by Myanmar's military dictatorship:

A protest was organized in front of the Myanmar Embassy in Japan to express support with the detained journalist. The protest was attended by friends of Kubota and Myanmar nationals who are demanding the release of the journalist.

This video report by independent media group Mizzima provides highlights of the protest action:

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