Myanmar’s military government has released foreign prisoners including Australian economist Sean Turnell, former United Kingdom ambassador Vicky Bowman and Japanese filmmaker Toru Kubota. The release is part of an amnesty to mark the 102nd anniversary of its National Victory Day.
A total of 5,774 prisoners were released and the foreign prisoners will be deported after their release, according to Maj Gen Zaw Min Tun, lead spokesman for the ruling State Administration Council.
Turnell, who served as an adviser to former leader Aung San Suu Kyi, was arrested days after the coup in February 2021. He was sentenced to three years in prison for breaking the colonial-era Official Secrets Act in a court ruling in September. He pleaded not guilty and appealed the verdict, as did his co-defendants, including Suu Kyi and former finance ministers.
The Australian government had rejected the court ruling against Turnell and called for his immediate release. Australia’s foreign minister Penny Wong said in a statement he had been “unjustly detained by the Myanmar military regime” and Australian Embassy officials were denied access to the closed court.
Sean Turnell discusses economic reforms by Myanmar’s NLD government at a seminar in Singapore in May 2018. (Photo: Reuters)
“Professor Turnell’s release is remarkable news after being held hostage by the regime, and his family and friends will be delighted,” independent analyst David Mathieson told AFP.
But he said the junta “shows no sign of reform and a mass amnesty doesn’t absolve them of atrocities committed since the coup.”
The junta also released former British ambassador Bowman who was handed a one-year prison sentence for violating the country’s immigration rules.
Bowman, who served as ambassador from 2002 to 2006, was detained with her husband in August for failing to declare she was living at an address different from the one listed on her foreigner’s registration certificate.
They were later jailed for one year. Her husband, prominent artist Htein Lin, will also be released, a senior officer told AFP.
Former British envoy Vicky Bowman. (Photo courtesy of Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business)
Kubota, 26, was detained in July near an anti-government rally in Yangon along with two Myanmar citizens and jailed for 10 years. He was jailed for encouraging dissent against the military, violating the nation’s telecommunications and immigration laws.
A source at Japan’s embassy in Myanmar told AFP they had “been informed that Mr Kubota will be released today” by junta authorities.
Kubota would leave for Japan “today”, they added.
Kubota is the fifth foreign journalist to be detained in Myanmar, after United States citizens Nathan Maung and Danny Fenster, Robert Bociaga of Poland and Yuki Kitazumi of Japan — all of whom were later freed and deported.
This file photo taken on July 31, 2022, shows a group of activists holding up placards with images of Japanese citizen Toru Kubota, who was detained in Myanmar, during a rally in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tokyo. (Photo: AFP)
As of March this year, 48 journalists remain in custody across the country, according to the monitoring group Reporting Asean.
Families gathered outside Insein prison in Yangon ahead of the expected announcement, an AFP reporter said.
Three former ministers from Suu Kyi’s ousted government and detained US-Myanmar citizen Kyaw Htay Oo would also be released, the junta official said.
Deposed leader Suu Kyi is serving a 26-year prison term while awaiting verdicts for five more charges.
The Southeast Asian country has been in turmoil since the coup last year, and a bloody crackdown on dissent that has seen thousands jailed.
Junta troops have killed at least 2,465 civilians and arrested 16,232 others since the coup, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. The group said 1,648 civilians are serving prison sentences under the junta, and it remains unclear how many of them were released in the amnesty Thursday.
The junta blames anti-coup fighters for the deaths of almost 3,900 civilians.
Sandals are seen at a local school that was damaged by an air attack carried out by the Myanmar military against the People Defence Force, in Sagaing, Myanmar, on Sept 16, 2022, in this social media video still image obtained by Reuters.