Freed foreigners return home after Myanmar prisoner amnesty

The four, including an Australian economist and a former UK ambassador, were among thousands detained after the military coup.

Sean Turnell stands on the right, looking relieved, with Australia's charge d'affaires in Myanmar after being released from Insein prison
Sean Turnell was freed from Insein Prison and arrived back in Australia on Friday [Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Angela Corcoran, via Reuters]

Four foreigners who were among the thousands jailed by Myanmar’s military following its February 2021 coup have flown out of the country after being released in an amnesty.

Sean Turnell, a 58-year-old Australian economist who worked as an adviser for elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi, arrived in Melbourne on Friday morning.

His wife, Ha Vu, posted a photo of the two of them smiling on social media.

“He is here,” she wrote, adding a smiling emoji surrounded by hearts.

Turnell was arrested shortly after the generals seized power and convicted alongside Aung San Suu Kyi of breaching the official secrets act in September. A military court jailed them for three years each.

Also returning home was Japanese journalist Toru Kubota who landed in Tokyo early on Friday morning. The 26-year-old was arrested after filming an anti-coup rally in Yangon in July and found guilty last month of inciting discontent against the military.

“I was released so quickly thanks to supporters in Japan, the press and government officials who made efforts to resolve the situation,” he told reporters at Haneda airport.

Former United Kingdom ambassador to Myanmar, Vicky Bowman took a connecting flight after arriving in Bangkok on Thursday night and did not comment on her release. She had been jailed with her husband, prominent artist Htein Lin, over immigration offences. The military had said he too would be freed but reporters on the plane said he was not with Bowman.

Japanese journalist Toru Kubota with a black backpack welcomed by dozens of supporters looking happy at Haneda airport in Tokyo
Japanese journalist Toru Kubota (front left) welcomed by his supporters on his arrival at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport after being released from a Myanmar prison, in Tokyo on November 18, 2022 [Kazuhiro NOGI / AFP]

The fourth foreigner, United States-Myanmar citizen Kyaw Htay Oo, told the AFP news agency he was “very happy” as he arrived in the Thai capital.

“I haven’t thought what I’m going to do when I get back home. What I know is Myanmar is still not free.”

Thousands held for political reasons

Nearly 6,000 prisoners were due to be released on Thursday to mark Myanmar’s National Day, “including some 600 women”, the military said in a statement announcing the amnesty.

Hundreds of people gathered outside Yangon’s Insein Prison early in the day despite the rain in the hope their loved ones would be among those released.

One woman, who did not want to give her name for fear of reprisals, said she was waiting for her husband, who was halfway through a three-year sentence for encouraging dissent against the military.

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, which has been tracking the military’s crackdown, says nearly 13,000 people have been detained for political reasons since February 2021.

“After the coup, he joined in the protests. I’m very proud of him,” she said.

People stretching to reach the window of a bus, holding signs with names, as they hope their loved ones are released from prison
People gathered outside Insein Prison in the hope their loved ones would be among those released [AP Photo]
Mya Aye hugging his colleague and smiling as he is released from prison. Everyone else looks happy too
Some political prisoners were among the nearly 6,000 people released. Mya Aye (centre), a prominent leader from Myanmar’s 88 Generation Students Group, was among those freed [AP Photo]

The generals have used brutal force to try and erase opposition to their rule, killing some 2,300 people, but they have been unable to suppress the resistance. Some citizens have taken up arms, joining so-called People’s Defence Forces and fighting alongside ethnic armed organisations battling for self-determination along the country’s borders.

Three former ministers in Aung San Suu Kyi’s government, including close confidants Thein Oo and lawyer Kyaw Hoe, were among those released on Thursday, as was Myo Nyunt, spokesman for her National League for Democracy party.

The military has announced a number of prisoner amnesties since seizing power but the US, which has sanctioned members of the military government, said there was no indication the generals were loosening their grip.

“It is one bright spot in what is otherwise an incredibly dark time,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters at an Asia-Pacific summit in Bangkok.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies