Myanmar-held reporter welcomed by political prisoners

The Associated Press

A Japanese journalist arrested in Myanmar while trying to cover its elections says he was locked up in a room that looked like a pigpen, but shed tears of joy when fellow inmates thanked him for coming to report on the country.

Toru Yamaji, 49, a reporter with the Tokyo-based APF news agency, also said he heard shots fired in skirmishes between ethnic rebels and government troops during his three days of detention.

Yamaji is a pseudonym. His real name is Toru Matsumoto.

He was detained Sunday on the eastern border of the junta-ruled country and was freed Tuesday. A Japanese diplomat quoted Myanmar officials as saying he was freed because of the “mutual friendly relations between the two countries.”

Foreign reporters were not granted visas to cover Saturday’s elections, which were widely seen as rigged to favor the ruling junta’s proxy party.

Yamaji said he had barely entered the country for an hour when he was surrounded by four men who said they were secret police and took him to a police station near the border.

“I was in a solitary room in what looked like a pigpen covered with bars,” Yamaji said in a statement released by APF.

Inmates in a nearby cell were political prisoners, including a democracy activist who had been imprisoned since 1995, and they thanked him for doing journalistic work that could help their cause, according to Yamaji.

“I was so happy I cried,” he said.

The military, which has ruled Myanmar since 1962, continues to hold some 2,200 political prisoners, including democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Yamaji said officers threatened to keep him for five or seven years. Skirmishes broke out between ethnic rebels and government troops, and shots were fired into his building, filling him with fear, he recalled.

But Yamaji said he had no regrets because during the hour in the border city of Myawaddy before he was detained he was able to see for himself that voter turnout was low, despite contrary claims by the government. Very few people were entering voting booths while crowds thronged the streets, he said.

Yamaji works for the same agency as video journalist Kenji Nagai, who was shot dead in 2007 while covering a democracy uprising in Yangon.