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Myanmar: Freed filmmaker Toru Kubota returns to Japan

Martin Fritz Tokyo
November 18, 2022

Toru Kubota, a Japanese documentary filmmaker who was sentenced to 10 years in prison in Myanmar, has expressed relief after being freed by the junta in an amnesty, Martin Fritz reports from Tokyo.

Journalist Toru Kubota speaks to reporters at Haneda international airport in Tokyo
Toru Kubota: 'I was released, but the people of Myanmar have to continue to live there' Image: Kyodo News/AP/picture alliance

Toru Kubota landed in Japan Friday morning after he was freed from prison and deported by Myanmar's junta on Thursday.  

The 26-year-old filmmaker and video journalist arrived in Tokyo on a scheduled flight from Yangon via Bangkok.

Kubota said upon landing that he wanted to express his gratitude for his release after spending three and a half months in prison. "I was released so quickly thanks to supporters in Japan, the press and government officials who made efforts to resolve the situation," he told reporters at Haneda airport.

Kubota was released at the "urgent request" of the Japanese government, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said.

Kubota is one of four foreign prisoners who were released by Myanmar authorities on Thursday as part of a broad prisoner amnesty that also freed many local citizens held for protesting the army takeover. It was announced to mark the country's National Victory Day.      

Among those released were Australian economist Sean Turnell, a former adviser to Myanmar's deposed leader Aung San Suu Kyi, former British Ambassador Vicky Bowman and US citizen Kyaw Htay Oo.

An attempt to appease international community?

On Thursday, state-run MRTV showed footage of the released foreigners signing their exit documents. According to an announcement on state media, the four people were released "for humanitarian reasons, as well as diplomatic relations between Myanmar and their respective countries."

The military junta said it had released a total of 5,774 prisoners.

According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, an independent monitoring group, they included at least 53 political prisoners.

The organization reported that the military government has arrested 16,246 people and killed 2,516 since the February 2021 coup against the democratically elected government.

Can ASEAN do more to stop the violence in Myanmar?

Analysts say the junta's move is an attempt to appease the international community, particularly nations in Southeast Asia, and win their support for the planned August 2023 general election.

The military has refused to recognize the November 2020 elections, won by Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy.

The timing of the surprise amnesty is aimed at this week's APEC regional economic summit in Bangkok, according to Human Rights Watch. 

"Myanmar should not be a revolving door for arrests and firings when the international spotlight is on the country because of the regional summits," said Elaine Pearson, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "We need sustained international pressure on the junta through coordinated targeted sanctions and a UN arms embargo to stop the flow of weapons."

A double conviction

Kubota was arrested on July 30 while filming a protest in Yangon. The footage was for his latest documentary about "the loneliness of a Burmese man." Kubota has produced several films about the Rohingya Muslim minority, who have been persecuted in Myanmar for decades, and has worked for media outlets including Vice Japan, the BBC and Al Jazeera.

In October, a military-controlled court sentenced him to seven years in prison for sedition and violations of the Electronic Communications Act for taking part in the demonstration and talking to participants. Kubota received a further three years in prison at a second trial, for entering the country on a tourist visa from neighboring Thailand.

Kubota was serving his sentence at Insein Prison in Yangon, which is notorious for inhumane conditions and mistreatment and torture of inmates.

"I was living in solitary confinement and the 10-year sentence weighed heavily on me," Kubota said. "But the people of Myanmar have to continue to live there. They suffer from bondage, even if it's hard to see. I was desperate when I was arrested, but the people there have been desperate for generations."

Among the political prisoners released were Ko Mya Aye, one of the student leaders of the first major uprising against the then military government in 1988, as well as Maung Thar Cho, a well-known writer, professor and politician, the monk U Pinnyasiha and Myo Nyunt, a spokesman for the National League for Democracy.

In July, in an escalation of its repression of political opponents, the military junta had executed four pro-democracy activists, including prominent dissident Ko and U Phyo Zeya Thaw, a former hip-hop artist who was elected to parliament.

This article was originally written in German.