A court in military-ruled Myanmar yesterday sentenced the Japanese documentary filmmaker Kubota Toru to 10 years in prison on two charges, making him the latest foreigner to fall afoul of the military junta’s legal capriciousness.
Citing an official from the Japanese Foreign Ministry, Reuters reported that Kubota was sentenced to three years in prison for sedition and seven years for violating a law on telecommunications. A separate trial is continuing on a charge of violating an immigration law, hearing on which is scheduled for October 12.
Kubota was arrested on July 30 in Yangon, after taking photos and videos of a small flash protest against the military junta that seized power in February 2021. As the Associated Press reported, the military claimed soon after Kubota’s arrest that he was detained while taking pictures and videos of a clutch of protesters in the city’s South Dagon township, and later confessed to police that he had contacted participants in the protest a day earlier in order to arrange to film them.
Since overthrowing Myanmar’s National League for Democracy government in a coup in February 2021, the military has clamped down on the press both foreign and domestic. It has forced at least 12 media outlets to shut down and arrested at least 142 journalists, 57 of whom remain detained on vague and elastic charges.
The crackdown has only increased as the resistance to the coup government has grown, and taken up an armed struggle to remove the military permanently from Myanmar’s politics. The country’s press corps has now reverted to the underground methods honed under the previous period of direct military rule before 2011, operating from exile in Thailand or further afield.
Local media reported that Kubota is expected to serve the two sentences concurrently – if he does serve them. As with last week’s conviction and imprisonment of the Australian economist Sean Turnell, who was arrested shortly after the coup and charged with vague, espionage-related offenses, the question now turns to the possibility of Kubota’s release.
The pattern thus far, and even dating back to before to coup, has been for the military to deport foreign journalists before they serve their full sentences. This was the case with the U.S. citizens Nathan Maung and Danny Fenster, both of whom worked for local publications, and the freelancers Robert Bociaga of Poland and Kitazumi Yuki of Japan. In the case of Kitazumi, who was released and returned to Japan in May 2021, just under a month after he was arrested and charged with spreading false news in his coverage of anti-coup protests, the military junta said his release reflected the historically warm relations between Tokyo and Naypyidaw.
It decided to release Kitazumi “in consideration of cordial relations between Myanmar and Japan up to now and in view of future bilateral relations, and upon the request of the Japanese government special envoy on Myanmar’s national reconciliation,” the Associated Press reported.
Whether Kubota benefits from this dwindling well of goodwill remains to be seen. Tokyo has in general been more muted in its criticism of the military administration than many of its Western counterparts, and for years has tended to emphasize the virtues of patient, backroom diplomacy over those of the megaphone. At the same time, the country’s current state of inflamed conflict and economic dysfunction has made the job of Japanese officials much more difficult, and their continued engagement with Naypyidaw much harder to justify.
Last month, the country’s Ministry of Defense announced the cancellation of a controversial training program for Myanmar military cadets, which has long attracted the ire of human rights groups. The decision was taken in response to the military government’s execution of four political prisoners in late July, an act that shocked international opinion.
Recently, I argued in these pages that the Japanese government is unlikely to alter its pragmatic position toward Myanmar, in light of its fears that the country, isolated from a large portion of the international mainstream, may swing unwittingly into China’s orbit. To this end, Japanese Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihiko Isozaki said that his government “continues to request the Myanmar authorities an early release of Mr. Kubota.” While the military government might well release him in order to strengthen its weakening friendship with Tokyo, its other actions sending very much the opposite message.