Documentarist Toru Kubota, detained by the Myanmar army: “What I want to tell you after three and a half months of despair
Detained by the Myanmar army while filming a protest movement, 20 people were falsely accused of "participating in a demonstration" and imprisoned, spending their days in a room of about 6 tatami mats and living in fear of the smell of feces and urine and cockroaches.
Dust hangs from the ceiling like a lark, and cockroaches are writhing on the walls. The only thing in the room is a toilet with no partitions. The interior was filled with the smell of feces, urine, and sweat. ……
Documentarist Toru Kubota (26) cannot describe the conditions of the detention center where he was detained in Myanmar. Mr. Kubota recalls (statements made by Mr. Kubota below).
More than 20 people were crammed into a room measuring about 5 meters by 2 meters (about 6 tatami mats). Usually they just lay there with nothing to do. But people are overlapping each other, and there is no space to stretch out your arms and legs. The room was just a plastic sheet on a concrete floor, with swarms of rats and mosquitoes ……. It was a hellish space.”
Mr. Kubota, who was released on November 17 and returned safely to Japan, describes the despair he experienced and the reality of the situation in Myanmar during the nearly four months he was detained.
Kubota became involved in Myanmar by chance.
In high school, I happened to see a video of the Rohingya (Myanmar’s Muslim minority) in class and became interested in them. He submitted a paper on the Rohingya to Keio University, which he had applied to, and passed the entrance examination with a recommendation. In my third year of university, I went to Myanmar and actually interviewed Rohingya in a refugee camp. I was shocked by the harsh conditions in which large numbers of Rohingya were isolated and had no access to medical care. Since then, I have continued to shoot footage in support of Rohingya refugees.
After the coup d’état by the national army in February 2009, Mr. Kubota felt a strong desire to “once again cover the current situation in Myanmar and make a documentary film about it. After the spread of the new coronavirus settled down, Mr. Kubota traveled to Myanmar on July 14 of this year.
Why did the officer’s attitude change?
I was detained by the military on July 30. It was after I covered a protest demonstration against the military that began at around 3 p.m. in the South Dagon district of Yangon, the largest city in Myanmar. In Myanmar, overt protests are prohibited. Therefore, the demonstrations are “flash demonstrations,” in which a small number of people hold up a protest banner for about 30 seconds and then immediately disperse. I was filming the demonstration from 20 to 30 meters away on the street, pretending to be a passerby.
When the demonstration ended and Mr. Kubota left the scene, a car approached from behind. Two plainclothes police officers appeared from inside. One of them held a gun to Mr. Kubota’s head and told him to raise his hands and kneel down.
When they pushed him into the car, they held his head down and told him to cover his eyes with a mask that was attached to his mouth. It is like an eye mask. I don’t know what was going on around me. The car had been running for about 10 minutes. I was taken to the police station.
The interrogation lasted two days. On the first day, he was treated well. Perhaps there was consideration for foreigners. The police chief’s room was comfortable and air-conditioned, which is rare in Myanmar. The next day, the treatment changed drastically.
The officer found a video of me on Facebook in support of the Rohingya. He said in broken English and Myanmarese, ‘Very, very bad. I’m disgusted when I see the video you took,'” he said, poking me. After the interrogation, the officer threatens me, saying, ‘You’re going to hell. I’m going to hell.
The conditions inside the detention center where Mr. Kubota was held were as described above. Even at night, the temperature rises above 30 degrees Celsius, and he cannot even bathe in the water. After spending a few days in the squalid conditions, Kubota was transferred to Yangon’s Insein Prison on August 4.
He was placed in a cell about 10 square meters in size. I was in a dark detention center with no sunlight, so I really appreciated the sunlight and the solitary confinement where no one disturbed me. However, such a peaceful feeling was overturned in a few days. There was nothing to do every day. The days were monotonous, with only curry or porridge for meals. I lost track of the days of the week and felt helpless, not knowing who I was. What saved me was a piece of paper and a pen that I secretly brought with me. I managed to maintain my mental state by writing down what I saw in the detention center and other places, and by drawing pictures of what the room looked like.
In front of the cell was a small space that looked like a garden. Mr. Kubota would leave his cell at the appointed time and mingle with the other inmates. He would leave his cell at the appointed time and interact with the other inmates, who taught him the Myanmarese language.
Some of them had been in prison for 20 years and were mentally ill,” he said. Some of them had been in prison for 20 years and were mentally ill. They were hallucinating and mumbling …… about something. Other inmates told me, ‘Don’t think too much. Don’t think too much. If you think too much, you’ll end up like that.
In October, Kubota was sentenced. He and a dozen other inmates were loaded into a truck, which took about five minutes. After entering an auditorium-like building and waiting in the hallway, they were called out one by one.
The “made-up photos” that served as evidence.
The large room to which I was called was divided into small sections by partitions. In the booth to which I was ushered, there were three men who looked like military personnel, a lawyer, and an interpreter. But there was no chance for me to explain myself. They unilaterally condemned me, saying, ‘You made a banner, participated in the demonstration, and incited it. What I was shown was a photo (second photo) taken by the national army during the interrogation after my detention, in which I was made to hold a banner with other protesters. I was interviewed, but I did not participate in the demonstration. They made up evidence.”
The sentence handed down was seven years imprisonment for incitement and violation of the Electronic Transactions Act. In another trial held a few days later, he was convicted of violating the Immigration Law and sentenced to three years in prison for the same offense. The combined sentence is 10 years’ imprisonment.
After the trial, the Myanmar detainees reported their sentences to each other as if they were comparing scores on a test: “I got seven years, I got 10 years. Fighting! Fighting! （Fighting! Fighting! Fighting! For the people of Myanmar, being subjected to unreasonable punishment is an everyday occurrence. Seeing their positive attitude even when confronted with harsh reality, I felt the strength of the Myanmar people.
For Mr. Kubota, a Japanese national, the sentence of 10 years’ imprisonment in a foreign country came as a shock.
I knew that the Japanese embassy was working through the prison, so I had faint hopes that they would do something about it. But one week passed, then two weeks passed, and still no action. The next thing I knew, I felt an avalanche of despair with no future in sight. Negative feelings covered my entire body, and I even imagined myself hanging myself and trying to kill myself.
Kubota did push-ups and muscle training every day. He did this to tire himself out, get a good night’s sleep, and stabilize his mind as much as possible. It was on the morning of November 17 that several guards suddenly appeared in his cell.
They said, ‘Get out now! ‘ they said. Within two or three minutes, I had packed my belongings and left the cell.
The next day, Kubota took a flight to Haneda Airport to return to Japan. While he was happy and grateful to be back in Japan, Kubota had something he wanted to share.
What I experienced in Myanmar is special to Japanese people,” he said. But for people in Myanmar, it is an everyday thing. It is an opportunity that many Japanese people have become interested in Myanmar because of this incident. I would like to convey the reality of the oppressed people through the images I shot in Myanmar. I think it is my great responsibility to have returned safely to Myanmar.”
Mr. Kubota is now working on a new film in support of the Rohingya.
From the December 23, 2022 issue of FRIDAY
PHOTO： Hiroyuki Komatsu