Myanmar’s military government has released almost 6,000 prisoners under mass amnesty, including an ex-British diplomat, an Australian economist and a Japanese documentary maker, to mark its National Day.
The military junta, which overthrew the democratically elected government in a 2021 coup, said it will grant pardons to the foreign nationals, including Australian economist Sean Turnell, former UK ambassador Vicky Bowman, Japanese filmmaker Toru Kubota and a US citizen, state media confirmed.
The move represented a rare olive branch to the Western countries, many of whom had slapped sanctions on the southeast Asian country following an unprecedented coup last year.
The military said that the amnesty was granted on “humanitarian grounds” and to mark Myanmar’s National Day.
A total of 5,774 male and 676 female prisoners were granted amnesty.
The move has elicited relief and is being celebrated by activists, lawyers and family members of the prisoners who were jailed. However, there was no immediate independent confirmation yet that the four foreign prisoners have been released.
In a carefully worded first remark, Australia’s foreign minister Penny Wong said: “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.”
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.
— Senator Penny Wong (@SenatorWong) November 17, 2022
Mr Turnell, who was former adviser to ousted leader and democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, was detained shortly after the coup and handed three years of jail under the Official Secrets Act.
Ms Bowman and Mr Kubota were jailed earlier this year and sentenced to a year and 10 years in jail respectively.
Ms Bowman, 56, a fluent Burmese speaker, was UK’s envoy to Myanmar between 2002 and 2006.
She 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.
Japan’s foreign ministry also confirmed they had been informed of Myanmar’s plans to release Mr Kubota, but had no further details other than that the 26-year-old Tokyo-based documentary filmmaker was reportedly in good health.
Mr Kubota was the fifth foreign journalist to be detained in Myanmar since the military seized power. He arrived in July to reportedly film a documentary about a Myanmarese person and was arrested the same month near an anti-government rally in Yangon.
He was handed 10 years in prison on sedition charges and for violating the electronic communications law.
American national Kyaw Htay Oo, as well as 11 local Myanmar celebrities, were among thousands of prisoners who were released, Myanmar’s state-run channel MRTV reported.
Myanmar has been facing increasing diplomatic isolation from Western countries as well as Asian neighbours following the 1 February 2021 coup when the military rolled down tanks and arrested Ms Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s president WinMyint and other leaders of the National League for Democracy (NLD), citing election fraud in the November 2020 elections.
In the follow-up, the military unleashed a brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protesters to clamp down on nationwide protests and armed resistance that some UN experts characterise as civil war.
Among others released were Kyaw Tint Swe, a former union minister for the office of the state counsellor, Than Htay, a former member of the Union Election Commission, and Lae Lae Maw, a former chief minister of the Tanintharyi Region who had been jailed for 30 years for corruption since 2020 under Ms Suu Kyi’s government, MRTV announced.