Myanmar’s military has announced it was releasing an Australian academic, a Japanese filmmaker, an ex-British diplomat and an American as part of a prisoner amnesty.
Myanmar’s state-run MRTV reported on Thursday that Australian Sean Turnell, Japan’s Toru Kubota, Briton Vicky Bowman and American Kyaw Htay Oo were among 5,774 prisoners who were being released.
The British embassy in Yangon said Bowman had not yet been released from prison, while a source at Japan’s embassy told the AFP news agency that they had been informed “Kubota will be released today”.
Three buses with freed prisoners were seen leaving Insein jail in Yangon on Thursday, according to AFP. The witnesses said former ruling party spokesperson Myo Nyunt and prominent democracy advocate Mya Aye were among those seen leaving the jail, Reuters reported.
Al Jazeera’s Tony Cheng reported from Bangkok that around 3 p.m. local time outside Yangon’s Insein prison, prisoners started to be released.
“Before the main release, VIP bus seen leaving the prison”, Cheng said, adding that they believe that the bus contrained three foreign prisoners Turnell, Kubota and Bowman.
“They are probably going towards their embassies. We understand from authorities that they will be deported at the earliest opportunity,” Cheng added.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken welcomed the prosoners’ release, but said there was no sign the military was opening up.
“It is one bright spot in what is otherwise an incredibly dark time, where we see things going from bad to worse in Burma,” Blinken said, using Myanmar’s former name. “While we are pleased to see the release of those wrongfully detained, I can’t tell you that it suggests anything larger about whether there is a genuine change in direction by the regime,” he told reporters at an Asia-Pacific summit in Bangkok.
The news was also welcomed by the British and Austrialian foreing ministers with UK’s top diplomat James Cleverly adding that “all those unjustly imprisoned in Myanmar should be released.”
Wonderful news – Professor Sean Turnell is free and on his way home to his family. I’ve just had the chance to speak with him.
— Senator Penny Wong (@SenatorWong) November 17, 2022
I welcome the release of Vicky Bowman and others from detention in Myanmar today.
All those unjustly imprisoned in Myanmar should be released.
— James Cleverly🇬🇧 (@JamesCleverly) November 17, 2022
Myanmar has been in political turmoil since last year’s coup, when the country’s generals arrested civilian leaders including Aung San Suu Kyi in early morning raids on February 1, 2021.
The power grab led to mass protests, which have evolved into an armed resistance to the military’s rule. Security forces have responded with brutal force, killing at least 2,465 people and detaining 16,323 people on political charges, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a civil society group.
Of those arrested, 13,015 were still in detention as of Wednesday, the group said.
Turnell, 58, an associate professor in economics at Sydney’s Macquarie University who worked as an economic adviser to Aung San Suu Kyi, was arrested by security forces at a hotel in Yangon shortly after the military seized power in a coup in February 2021.
He was sentenced in September to three years in prison for violating the country’s official secrets and immigration laws.
Kubota, a 26-year-old Tokyo-based documentary filmmaker, was arrested on July 30 by plainclothes police in Yangon after taking images and videos last year of a small flash protest against the military takeover.
He was convicted last month by the prison court of incitement for participating in the protest and other charges and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Bowman, 56, a former United Kingdom ambassador to Myanmar, was arrested with her husband, a Myanmar national, in Yangon in August. She was given a one-year prison term in September for failing to register her residence.
A senior military officer told the AFP news agency that Bowman’s husband, Htein Lin, will also be released.
Kyaw Htay Oo, a naturalized American, was meanwhile arrested in September, 2021 on terrorism charges and had been in custody ever since.
Myanmar Now, an independent news outlet, cited the military council as saying the pardons were granted because it was Myanmar’s National Day.
It said those set to be released also included 11 Myanmar celebrities.
Analysts say Myanmar’s military may be responding to pressure from Southeast Asian heads of government, who condemned last week the generals’s lack of progress on a peace plan agreed last year.
At a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), leaders called for measurable progress on the Five Point Consensus or risk being barred from the bloc’s meetings. They also agreed on a need for “concrete, practical and measurable indicators with a specific timeline”.
Zachary Abuza, an expert on Southeast Asian politics, said Myanmar’s “junta fears a harder line” from ASEAN, including concerns that members of the bloc may support Malaysia’s calls to reject an election the generals plan to hold next year.
The reported release of the four foreigners “is a preemptive move to encourage engagement,” tweeted the professor at the National War College in Washington, DC.
Bowman, Turnell & Kubota to be released by #Myanmar authorities this hour. Junta fears a harder line from #Indonesia & #Malaysian FM Saifuddin's call to reject the 8/23 elections from gaining strength amongst other ASEAN members. This is a preemptive move to encourage engagement.
— Zachary Abuza (@ZachAbuza) November 17, 2022