Myanmar junta to release 4 foreign prisoners as part of major amnesty

Junta says those being freed include a former British ambassador and an Australian economic advisor to Suu Kyi.
By RFA Burmese and Pimuk Rakkanam for BenarNews
2022.11.16
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Mya Aye, a political activist imprisoned following the military coup, is greeted as he walks free after his release from Insein Prison, in Yangon, Myanmar, Nov. 17, 2022. Credit: Assistance Association for Myanmar Based Independent Journalists via Reuters

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A newly released prisoner looks out a bus window at the crowd waiting outside Insein Prison in Yangon, Myanmar, Nov. 17, 2022. Credit: RFA

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Briton Vicky Bowman is shown seated during a ceremony inside Insein Prison in Yangon, Myanmar, Nov. 17, 2022. Credit: MRTV via AP

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Myo Nyunt [left], central executive committee member of National League For Democracy, and Kyaw Hoe, National League For Democracy party's economy advisor, wait to leave a bus after their release from Insein Prison, in Yangon, Myanmar, Nov. 17, 2022. Credit: RFA

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The waiting crowd waves as a bus leaves with Insein Prison in Yangon, Myanmar, with freed prisoners, Nov. 17, 2022. Credit: RFA

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Maung Thar Cho, a prominent author, is seen after his release from Insein Prison, Nov. 17, 2022, in Yangon, Myanmar. Credit: Associated Press

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American Kyaw Htay Oo [center] stands with unidentified officials at Yangon International Airport in Yangon, Myanmar, Nov. 17, 2022. Credit: MRTV via AP

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Japanese national Toru Kubota [front] and Australian Sean Turnell [center] are shown during a ceremony inside Insein Prison in Yangon, Myanmar, Nov. 17, 2022. Credit: MRTV via AP

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People hold up signs as a bus with freed prisoners leaves Insein Prison in Yangon, Myanmar, Nov. 17, 2022. Credit: RFA

UPDATED AT 010:34 A.M. ET ON 11-17-2022

Myanmar's junta says it is releasing four foreigners from prison, including a former British ambassador and an Australian economist, as part of a major amnesty to mark a national holiday on Thursday.

Among the 5,774 prisoners to be released are Australian Sean Turnell, a former economic advisor to ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi; Vicky Bowman, a former U.K. ambassador to Myanmar; Japanese documentary filmmaker Toru Kubota; and Burmese-American national Kyaw Htay Oo. All four will be deported after their release, according to junta spokesman Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun.

The spokesman told RFA Burmese that 712 political prisoners were being released.

A lawyer with knowledge of the situation, who wished to remain anonymous for safety reasons, told Radio Free Asia that Turnell was brought to Yangon airport at 08:00 a.m. on Thursday morning, transferred to Embassy officials and was being sent back to Australia immediately. However, RFA has received no confirmation from the Australian Embassy of his release.

Turnell served as an economic adviser during the government led by Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy. He was sentenced to three years in prison in September under the Myanmar Government Secrecy Act. Turnell was also sentenced to a further three years under the Immigration Law but the two charges were to be served concurrently. 

Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong tweeted: "We welcome reports in relation to Professor Sean Turnell. Professor Turnell continues to be our first priority. As such, we will not be commenting further at this stage."

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, speaking at a news conference Thursday in Bangkok on the sidelines of the APEC summit, welcomed the release of Kyaw Htay Oo, who he said had been "unjustly detained" and imprisoned in Burma for more than 14 months.

"The security and safety of Americans abroad is my priority and we will never stop working to secure the release of Americans who were wrongly detained," he said.

Kyaw Htay Oo was arrested shortly at the Myanmar-Thai border a few months after the coup. The Associated Press, citing media reports, said he is a naturalized American who returned to Myanmar, the country of his birth, in 2017. He was arrested in September, 2021 on terrorism charges and has been in custody ever since.

The U.K. and Japanese embassies have not so far confirmed the release of the other two foreigners.

Bowman and her Burmese husband, Htein Lin, were also sentenced in September to one year in prison each on immigration violation charges. Authorities arrested Bowman, who served as ambassador from 2002-2006, and her husband, an artist and former political prisoner, in August and jailed them in Yangon's Insein prison. The junta spokesman told RFA that Bowman’s husband will also be released.

Kubota, 26, was arrested in July while filming a protest in Yangon and found guilty in October of defaming the state and violating the Electronic Communication Act by a military court in Insein. He was sentenced to three years for the first charge and seven years for the second but the sentences were to be served concurrently. He was also sentenced to a further three years in prison for breaching immigration laws.

RFA has contacted the U.K. and Japanese governments for comment.

Sources also confirmed to RFA on Thursday morning that dozens of political prisoners would be freed imminently in the central Myanmar town of Pyay and photographs taken by RFA showed people leaving the prison carrying bags.

Some 32 political prisoners who were imprisoned in Pyay Prison in central Myanmar's Bago region were starting to be freed, sources close to the prison told RFA. They included Pyay-based freelance journalist La Pyae.

They are among thousands detained since the military deposed Suu Kyi's civilian administration in a Feb. 1, 2021, coup.

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Some of the 32 political prisoners leaving Pyay Prison, Bago region, Myanmar on Nov. 17, 2022.
CREDIT: RFA

The junta spokesman said that among others to be released Thursday are former Minister for the Office of the State Counselor Kyaw Tint Swe and Than Htay, a former member of the United Election Commission.

The prisoner amnesty marks National Day which commemorates the start of Burmese unrest against British colonial rule in 1920. Thursday marks the 102nd anniversary.

But more significantly, the announced releases of the foreigners and opposition politicians comes just after Indonesia took over the rotating chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Indonesia was anticipated to take a tougher line toward the junta than the 2022 ASEAN chair, Cambodia, which sent a special envoy to Myanmar twice this year with no progress on implementing the Five Point Consensus, which aimed to restore peace and democracy to the country.

ASEAN leaders released a statement after summits last week saying they would charge their foreign ministers with setting a clear timeline for the junta to bring peace to Myanmar and hold talks with opposition politicians. The junta is planning to hold general elections next year.

Written in English by Mike Firn. 

This story has been updated to include comments by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the lawyer's claim of Sean Turnell's release on Thursday morning.

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