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Japan filmmaker freed from Myanmar prison vows to tell story

TOKYO (AP) — Toru Kubota, a Japanese journalist who was arrested while covering a protest in military-ruled Myanmar and detained for more than three months, said his experience made him more determined to tell the story of people there.

“I feel I can understand their feelings more,” he said at a news conference in Tokyo on Monday.

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Kubota, 26, was arrested July 30 and released on Nov. 17 in a broad prisoner amnesty announced by Myanmar’s military government.

He had been sentenced to 10 years in prison for allegedly breaking immigration law, sedition and other violations.

Australian academic Sean Turnell, former British Ambassador Vicky Bowman and American Kyaw Htay Oo were also released in the amnesty.

But Kubota stressed that many people remain imprisoned.

“I’m just one of those 16,000 people,” Kubota said, referring to the number of people who have been detained, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a rights monitoring organization.

Kubota said he was among 20 people placed in what he described as a “hellish” cell so tiny they had to sleep on top of each other.

Later, he was transferred to Insein prison in Yangon, the largest city in Myanmar, also known as Burma. The prison has housed political prisoners under various previous governments.

Kubota showed copies of messages that inmates had given him pleading for help. “Hope everyone can help bring justice, human rights and democracy that are needed in Burma,” said one message in Burmese. “Thank you for standing with the Burmese people,” read another.

Kubota said he hopes to continue making films that will bring attention to the plight of people in Myanmar. His past films include several on Myanmar, including a documentary on persecuted minority Rohingya refugees who have fled the country.

“Being deprived of freedom means you can’t speak out, or you can’t express your views. It deprives you of your rights, your freedom,” he said.

A graduate of Japan’s Keio University with a master’s degree from the University of the Arts London, Kubota has done work for Yahoo! News Japan, Vice Japan and Al Jazeera English.

Myanmar’s army seized power in February last year by ousting the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi. It has cracked down on dissent, killing at least 2,465 civilians and arresting more than 16,000, according to the Assistance Association. Journalists have been detained on various charges, such as causing fear, spreading false news and agitating.

The Japanese government worked for Kubota’s release. His friends and supporters collected tens of thousands of signatures in an online petition, and PEN International and other rights groups also pushed for his freedom.

Kubota urged the Japanese government to do more to end human rights abuses in Myanmar.

He also said Japan could do more to welcome refugees from Myanmar and other nations. Last year, Japan accepted only 74 people as refugees, according to the Japan Association for Refugees.

“We must think about how to protect people who are trying to flee from authoritarian rule,” Kubota said. “Japan is being looked to as a place of hope.”

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Yuri Kageyama is on Twitter at https://twitter.com/yurikageyama

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