British, Australian and Japanese prisoners freed in Myanmar junta amnesty

A former British envoy, an Australian economic adviser and a Japanese journalist arrived in Thailand late Thursday after being freed by Myanmar's junta in an amnesty involving almost 6,000 prisoners.

Myanmar has been in turmoil since a military coup last year and has seen a bloody crackdown on dissent in which thousands of people have been jailed.

Former British ambassador Vicky Bowman, Australian economic adviser Sean Turnell and Japanese journalist Toru Kubota touched down in Bangkok just after 7 pm (1200 GMT), according to an AFP reporter on their flight.

Bowman, who wore a traditional Burmese dress, did not comment as she was escorted by British embassy staff through the airport to a connecting flight.

Kubota wore a T-shirt and waved to fellow passengers but did not respond to a request for comment.

But another prisoner freed in the amnesty, US-Myanmar citizen Kyaw Htay Oo, told AFP he was "very happy".

The freed prisoners on the flight looked in good health, the AFP reporter said.

A total of 5,774 prisoners were due to be released to mark Myanmar's national day, "including some 600 women", the junta said in a statement Thursday.

Three former ministers in the government of ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi were among those to be freed, it added.

The junta did not say in its statement how many of those pardoned had been arrested during the military's crackdown on dissent.

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.

The couple were later jailed for a year. Her husband, prominent Myanmar artist Htein Lin, will also be released, the military said.

But he was not on the flight to Bangkok, according to the AFP journalist.

Australian Turnell was working as an adviser to Myanmar's civilian leader Suu Kyi when he was detained shortly after the coup in February 2021.

He and Suu Kyi were convicted in September by a closed junta court of breaching the official secrets act and jailed for three years each.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said Thursday that he had spoken with Turnell after his release and the economist was in "amazingly good spirits".

Japanese journalist 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 the fifth foreign journalist to be detained in Myanmar since the coup, 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.

- 'Very proud of him' -

Hundreds gathered outside Yangon's Insein prison early Thursday 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.

"After the coup, he joined in the protests. I'm very proud of him," she said.

Independent analyst David Mathieson told AFP: "Professor Turnell's release is remarkable news after being held hostage by the regime, and his family and friends will be delighted."

However, he said, the junta "shows no sign of reform and a mass amnesty doesn't absolve them of atrocities committed since the coup".

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken welcomed the prisoner release but said there was no sign the junta was opening up.

"It is one bright spot in what is otherwise an incredibly dark time," Blinken told reporters at an Asia-Pacific summit in Bangkok.

Amnesty International's regional office spokesperson said: "Thousands of people jailed since the coup in Myanmar have done nothing wrong and should never have been imprisoned in the first place."

More than 2,300 civilians have been killed since the military's crackdown on dissent after it ousted Suu Kyi's government, according to a Myanmar monitoring group.

The junta blames anti-coup fighters for the deaths of almost 3,900 civilians.

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