Japan seeks truth about photographer's death

TOKYO Fri Sep 28, 2007 4:38am EDT

Japanese video journalist Kenji Nagai, is seen in this handout photo taken in April, 2003 in Amman, Jordan. REUTERS/Handout via Kyodo

Japanese video journalist Kenji Nagai, is seen in this handout photo taken in April, 2003 in Amman, Jordan.

Credit: Reuters/Handout via Kyodo

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TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan may suspend humanitarian aid to Myanmar once it has established the facts behind the killing of a Japanese photographer during anti-government protests, the top government spokesman said on Friday.

Photographer Kenji Nagai, 50, was shot dead on a Yangon street on Thursday. Pictures smuggled out of the country showed him taking photos with a small camera even as he lay dying.

"We will urge the Myanmar government to find out the truth about his death," Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura told a news conference.

"At this stage we have not decided to suspend grant aid," Machimura said, adding Tokyo would watch responses by the United Nations and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) before deciding on sanctions.

Kyodo news agency quoted Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda as saying that, in a telephone conversation with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, he had urged Beijing to use its influence on Myanmar's junta.

"I asked that China, given its close ties with Myanmar, exercise its influence and Premier Wen said he will make such efforts," he told reporters.

Machimura said it was not clear whether the shooting of the photographer was deliberate or at close range, as some Japanese media had reported.

It was not clear whether Nagai was working officially or not. Myanmar rarely issues working visas to journalists, and Yangon's embassies around the world are known to keep blacklists of reporters who are routinely refused even tourist visas.

Quoting embassy doctors who examined the body on Thursday, Machimura said the bullet that killed Nagai had passed from the right side of his chest through the heart and back.

TOO SOFT A STANCE?

Nagai is the first foreign victim of the protests that began as sporadic marches against fuel price hikes but have swelled over the past month into mass demonstrations against 45 years of military rule in the country, which is also known as Burma.

"We are greatly concerned ... and are urging Myanmar's government to take immediate steps to end this situation peacefully and through dialogue," Kyodo quoted Japanese diplomat Kenichiro Sasae as saying in Beijing.

Japan has been criticized in the past for not taking a hard line on Myanmar's military government, and on Friday a Japanese opposition leader urged his country's leaders to speak out.

"Now is the time for the Japanese government to lead the international community and ask the military junta to fulfill its responsibility and immediately end this bloody tragedy," said opposition Democratic Party Secretary-General Yukio Hatoyama.

"I also pray that the political prisoners, including Ms Aung San Suu Kyi, will be released immediately and that Burma will become a democratic country soon," Hatoyama said.

Tokyo has withheld new aid to impoverished Myanmar since democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi was detained in 2003, but it still funds emergency health projects and provides some training and technological transfers.

Japan has provided a total of about 3 billion yen ($26 million) in aid annually in recent years, compared with 10 billion in 2001.

There are 615 Japanese nationals and 74 Japanese companies in Myanmar, Machimura said on Thursday.

($1=115.20 Yen)

(Additional reporting by Yoko Kubota and Isabel Reynolds)

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