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The Japanese journalist arrested in eastern Burma on 7 November and released two days later has spoken of his ordeal, which included a threat of a seven-year prison sentence.
Toru Yamaji was released on Tuesday evening from a police station in Myawaddy, having been arrested two days earlier for sneaking into Burma to cover the elections. He told his news agency, the Tokyo-based APF, that he had crossed the Moei river, separating Thailand from Burma, on an inflated inner-tube of a tyre.
As the 49-year-old photographed voters inside a polling station in Myawaddy, he was approached by four men, who later identified themselves as secret police. They spoke to him in English, he said, and ordered him into a waiting car. He was driven two kilometres to the Myawaddy police headquarters.
“I was put in a single occupancy room that was like a pigsty, covered in a cage,” he said. “A political prisoner who was in a cage next to me said, ‘Thank you for working for us’. That made me happy and tearful.” The prisoner told Yamaji that he had been in detention since 1995, and had been tortured.
Gunfire then erupted around the police station, as troops from a breakaway Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) faction made an incursion into the town.
“Shots were fired many times next to the structure I was in and the roads close by. I asked the prison guard to open the door but he wouldn’t listen. It didn’t feel like I was living; it felt very scary.”
Two days later a judge arrived at the police station. “I will pronounce a five- to seven-year prison sentence on you,” he told Yamaji. “On 21 November you will be transferred to a court of law, and will most probably be sent down with the sentencing,” the judge finished.
An hour later, however, the judge made another appearance. “There is good news for you,” he told the reporter, explaining that the “deep friendship” between the Burmese and Japanese governments meant Yamaji would be released.
Foreign journalists and observers had been banned from entering Burma during the elections, which were controversially won by the pro-junta Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).
Burma has some of the world’s strictest media laws, and it was there that Japanese reporter Kenji Nagai, a colleague of Yamaji, was shot dead by a Burmese soldier as he covered the September 2007 uprising in Rangoon.