On Thursday, Myanmar’s military said it would release almost 6,000 prisoners — including a former British ambassador, a Japanese journalist and an Australian economics advisor who will be deported — a rare olive branch from the isolated junta.
The Southeast Asian country has been in turmoil since the military’s coup last year and a bloody crackdown on dissent that has seen thousands jailed.
Dozens of foreign nationals have been caught up in the crackdown.
Former British envoy Vicky Bowman, Australian economics advisor Sean Turnell, and Japanese journalist Toru Kubota “will be released to mark National Day”, a senior officer told AFP.
All three would be deported, the junta said without specifying a date.
“Altogether, 5,774 prisoners, including some 600 women prisoners will be released,” they said, revising an earlier figure of about 700.
In its statement announcing the amnesty, the junta’s information team did not say how many of those pardoned had been arrested during the military’s crackdown on dissent.
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Bowman, who served as an ambassador from 2002 to 2006, was detained with her husband in August for failing to declare that she was living at an address different from the one listed on her foreigner’s registration certificate.
They were later jailed for a year. Her husband, prominent artist Htein Lin, will also be released, the military official said.
A British diplomatic source said Bowman had not yet been released, but they “expected” her to be freed. The junta statement did not list her husband, a Myanmar citizen, among those due to be deported.
Ties between Myanmar and its former colonial ruler Britain have soured since the military’s takeover, with the junta this year criticising the UK’s recent downgrading of its mission in the country as “unacceptable”.
Sean Turnell was working as an advisor to Myanmar’s civilian leader Suu Kyi when he was detained shortly after the coup in February last year.
In September, he and Suu Kyi were convicted by a closed junta court of breaching the Official Secrets Act, and were jailed for three years each.
Kubota, 26, was detained in July near an anti-government rally in Yangon along with two Myanmar citizens and was jailed for 10 years.
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.
He is the fifth foreign journalist to be detained in Myanmar, after US citizens Nathan Maung and Danny Fenster, Robert Bociaga of Poland, and Yuki Kitazumi of Japan — all of whom were later freed and deported.
At least 170 journalists have been arrested since the coup according to UNESCO, with nearly 70 still in detention.
Families and friends hoping their loved ones would be included in the amnesty, gathered outside Insein prison in Yangon, said AFP reporters who also saw several yellow buses enter the sprawling compound.
San San Aye said she was waiting for her brothers and sisters to be released.
“Three of them were sentenced to three years each, eight months ago,” she told AFP.
“Their children are waiting at home. We will be more than happy if they are released.”
Kyaw Htay said his son had been sentenced to three years for sharing anti-coup posts on social media.
“I hope he will be released today,” he told AFP.
“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.
Yet, he said that the junta “shows no sign of reform and a mass amnesty doesn’t absolve them of atrocities committed since the coup”.
“Thousands of people jailed since the coup in Myanmar have done nothing wrong and should never have been imprisoned in the first place,” said Amnesty’s regional office spokesperson.
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.
The military’s crackdown on dissent since it ousted Suu Kyi’s government has left more than 2,300 civilians dead, according to a local monitoring group.
The junta blames anti-coup fighters for the deaths of almost 3,900 civilians.