On Nov. 17, 2022, I was inside Insein Prison’s solitary confinement room number 29 when guards approached the iron bar door with excitement. They declared: “You are released!” This was the moment when my 111 days of incarceration ended.
In an instant, my entire life in Burma up to that point flashed through my mind.
The moment when a gun was pointed at me by soldiers on my way home from filming an anti-coup protest in Yangon. I was taken to a hellish environment of a prison cell where 20 men were lying down with their bodies overlapping. I ended up in a small, dark, room in a military court where false charges were brought against me. I was given a 10-year sentence.
I realized that this surreal experience was coming to an end.
Once the guard passed on the news, prisoners around me, and even those from other cell blocks, started cheering. Even though they were not being released, they seemed happy from the bottom of their hearts and rushed towards me as I was taken out of my prison cell.
A fellow journalist who, like myself, had been arrested came to see me off to the prison gate. At the last moment before I exited Insein Prison, he whispered in my ear while patting my shoulder.
“Keep working on Burma from the outside,” he told me.
I knew the moment I returned home to Japan I would do my best. But the reality that he would have to endure a longer stay than me in prison made me sad. He was unable to do anything while in prison, so he trusted me to get things started. Once back home in Japan, his words lingered in my mind.
A few months after my release, on Feb. 1, 2023, I co-founded Docu Athan. This project aims to support journalists and filmmakers from Burma.
Yuki Kitazumi, a Japanese journalist who was also jailed at Insein Prison, and I, wanted to start an online platform to support content creators (journalists, filmmakers, artists etc.) who have been deprived of freedom of expression since the 2021 military coup.
Athan means voice and opinion in Burmese. We named it that with the purpose of allowing these content creators a to have a platform to give voice to the people of Burma.
We’ve collaborated with filmmakers working in exile or in hiding, and have translated their films into Japanese and English. We then showcase them on the Docu Athan website with subtitles. We don’t ask viewers to pay to view the films. Instead, we provide a way for viewers to make direct donations to the filmmakers through our website.
As of December 2023, we’ve showcased 17 films and called for donations for 11 creators. We want to produce new films once we’re able to secure more funding.
Last April, I traveled to Mae Sot, Thailand, which is located across from Burma’s Myawaddy. Many of the creators we’ve collaborated with are based along the Thai-Burma border.
The Independent Myanmar Journalist Association (IMJA) states that at least 100 journalists from Burma are actively working along the border. I aimed to make short films portraying the lives of these journalists and filmmakers in exile.
They had been at the forefront of the industry pre-2021, but then became a target in the military’s crackdown on anti-coup protests following the 2021 coup. Many had to flee the country without documents and cross the border into Thailand.
Even after this risky journey, they had to face the harsh reality of living undocumented in Thailand.
Some police in Mae Sot take advantage of this undocumented status by demanding bribes in exchange for allowing them to remain. This constant exploitation causes both financial and mental anguish to the thousands who’ve come to Thailand to avoid arrest or persecution in Burma.
A female journalist shared her story about having to leave home and cross into Thailand. She waded across the Thaungyin/Moei river up to her nose, holding her camera and laptop above her head to prevent them from getting wet. It was the only belongings she was able to bring with her on the journey into exile.
She looked proud as she told me this story. It was a symbolic gesture of how a journalist would save the tools of her trade. But months after her arrival in Thailand, she revealed that she had to sell her camera, because she needed 5,000 baht to pay rent and the police.
Under these difficult circumstances, Burmese in exile are figuring out how to continue their creative endeavours. The goal of Docu Athan is to build a sustainable platform where these professionals can get paid what they deserve for their work.
Many Burmese have difficulty in finding or renting film equipment in Mae Sot. There is a desperate need for cameras, microphones and laptops among filmmakers and journalists in exile.
In December 2023, I made my second journey to Mae Sot with a suitcase packed with two mirrorless cameras, microphones and batteries. Using the funds donated to Docu Athan, we purchased two sets of filming equipment, so that anyone can borrow them for free.
We call it Nagai’s Camera Project, to commemorate Kenji Nagai, the Japanese journalist killed by the military while covering the Saffron Revolution protests in 2007. We wanted to keep Nagai’s memory alive 16 years after his death and help document what is happening in Burma since the 2021 coup.
My next goal is to create a community of content creators in Mae Sot who can share their work publicly, and internationally. I would like to include non-Burmese creators so that we can encourage international collaboration. I believe pan-Asian solidarity is essential in creating unity with the Burmese and raising awareness about the situation they now face.
It is not going to be an easy path forward. I always reminisce about my 111 days at Insein Prison. I kept a note that I wrote secretly in confinement room 29:
10/14 [Fri] “I’m responsible for my actions in Burma, of course. How do I take responsibility? There is only one answer: To continue doing the work in which I’m trained. Could I make a film community to bring together Burmese and Japanese?
I told myself that I needed to work hard to create this space for journalists and filmmakers to share their stories with the world. This is the same promise I made to my fellow journalist as I was leaving the prison gate. Thus, Docu Athan was born.
If you wish to donate to a new film project, or make a donation, please contact: [email protected].
Toru Kubota is Japanese documentary filmmaker born in 1996. He created films with media companies such as NHK, BBC and Al Jazeera. In July 2022, he was arbitrarily arrested by the military while filming in Yangon and was released after 111 days of incarceration. He is a co-founder of Docu Athan, an organization that supports exiled journalists from Burma.
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