Death of a Journalist
covering burma and southeast asia
Tuesday, July 23, 2019


Death of a Journalist

By Yamamoto Munesuke/Japan DECEMBER, 2007 - VOLUME 15 NO.12


The shooting of a Japanese cameraman by Burmese security forces shocked the Japanese public and government, but what about official foreign policy?

Kenji Nagai [Photo: AFP]
It was painful to witness the images broadcast worldwide on September 27. Japanese cameraman Kenji Nagai was lying on his back on a street in Rangoon. Then there was the piercing sound of a bullet fired from the rifle of a soldier.

Kenji Nagai, a man I considered a colleague, was dead. Immediately, I thought: It could have been me. As a photojournalist, I also report on conflicts. I have covered many Asian countries, including Burma, and I imagined myself in Kenji Nagai’s place, lying dead on a street in Rangoon.

But, I was in Japan, and he was in Rangoon. However, I knew the streets where the pro-democracy demonstrations occurred—the scene was very familiar to me.

For me, the shooting confirmed the true mentality of the Burmese junta, which has been killing and imprisoning the Burmese people with impunity for decades: 3,000 or more people dead in 1988 alone, the year I started covering events in Burma.

On the day Kenji Nagai was murdered, I was taking photographs of Burmese exiled activists who were demonstrating in front of the Burmese Embassy in Tokyo, demanding the Japanese government stop supporting the State Peace and Development Council financially.

Later that day, my mobile phone started ringing, one call after another without a break. News agencies and newspapers were calling me to check if the unidentified Japanese journalist killed in Rangoon was me or not. One call was from Australia, from my Burmese friend who had worked as my interpreter when I made trips to Burma. He explained that he was worried about me when he heard the news.

Before long, the Japanese media confirmed the dead journalist was Kenji Nagai. His name was new to me, and we had never met.

The TV news showed video of the shooting of Kenji Nagai over and over again for several days. The Japanese public was horrified and angry. The Japanese government seemed shocked. Perhaps for the first time, the government realized the SPDC is truly an evil government.

When the funeral service was held on October 8 in Tokyo, hundreds of Burmese exiles attended the service to honor Kenji Nagai. They apologized for his death on behalf of the SPDC government, which they hate. It was a natural feeling for the Burmese people who live in Japan to express their sorrow for Kenji Nagai, who was now a martyr in the Burmese struggle for democracy.

The final shot—Did Kenji Nagai take a picture of his own executioner? [Photo: Reuters]

Media coverage on Kenji Nagai focused on his personality, his professional work in Iraq and elsewhere, but neglected any factual background on what had been happening in Burma under the military regime for the past 20 years. There were almost no critical questions about Japan’s foreign policy toward the military junta—whether it was trying to help the country move toward democracy or helping the SPDC.

As a photojournalist, I have been critical of Japan’s foreign policy which has favored the SPDC generals rather than the democratic forces and the ethnic minorities. You can get a sense of Japan’s policy toward the SPDC through various comments made by top Japanese diplomats.

For instance, the then Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi made an ignorant comment in May 2003, when she was asked about the murderous attack on Aung San Suu Kyi’s motorcade at Depayin. She said, “There is no deterioration of environment for dialogue between the SPDC and Aung San Suu Kyi.” She retracted her comment the next day.

In May 2006, Japanese ambassador to the UN, Kenzo Oshima, said, “Burma does not constitute a regional threat yet,” and along with China and Russia, Japan opposed efforts by the US and EU to put Burma on the Security Council agenda.

The latest and most shameless comment was made by Yoichi Yamaguchi, the former Japanese ambassador to Burma (1995-97).

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