Foreign detainees arrive home after Myanmar prisoner amnesty

Australian economist lands in Melbourne; Japanese journalist lands in Tokyo a day after Thursday’s mass release.

Australian economist Sean Turnell and Japanese journalist Toru Kubota arrived home Friday after an amnesty by the Myanmar junta for thousands of prisoners including four foreign nationals arrested since a military coup that has thrust the Southeast Asian nation into turmoil.

Turnell, a former economic advisor to ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, landed in Melbourne early Friday. His wife, Ha Vu, released a statement saying she was "overwhelmed with joy" that her "beloved husband" was back home, Australian network ABC reported.

Earlier, Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong tweeted a picture of a gaunt-looking Turnell, who had been detained for 650 days, alongside the nation’s diplomatic chief of mission in Myanmar. Turnell had been serving a three-year sentence under the Myanmar Government Secrecy Act.

On Thursday, Myanmar's state-run MRTV showed footage of the freed foreign nationals signing exit documents with officials. An announcement posted in state media said the four individuals were released “on humanitarian grounds as well as on the ground of diplomatic relations between Myanmar and their respective countries.”

The British government confirmed the release of Vicky Bowman, a former U.K. ambassador to Myanmar, who had been sentenced to one year for a purported immigration offense. Her Burmese artist husband, Htein Lin, was also pardoned from his one-term prison sentence.

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

The Japanese journalist Kubota, who was arrested in July while filming a protest in Yangon, was serving a 10-year prison term. He arrived back in Tokyo early Friday, Japanese media reported.

Toru Kubota, a Japanese filmmaker freed by authorities in Myanmar, speaks to the media upon his arrival at Haneda Airport, in Tokyo, Japan, Nov. 18, 2022.
CREDIT: Kyodo via Reuters

Junta spokesman Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun said Thursday that 5,774 prisoners in all were being released, including 712 political prisoners, to mark Myanmar’s National Victory Day, which commemorates the start of unrest against British colonial rule in 1920.

The state-run Global New Light of Myanmar reported Friday that 985 prisoners, including the four foreigners, were released from Yangon’s Insein Prison, and 485 were released from Mandalay Central Prison.

The newspaper carried a “pardon order” for three prominent opposition figures: former Minister for the Office of the State Counselor Kyaw Tint Swe; former Union Election Commission member Than Htay; and former lawmaker and Tanintharyi Region Chief Minister Lei Lei Maw.

There was also a notice of withdrawal of criminal cases against 11 prominent artists and cultural figures.

Analysts say the amnesty comes as the junta looks to placate the international community, particularly the Southeast Asian bloc, and win support for its plan for elections next year.

The junta, which seized power from an elected civilian administration in February 2021 after the military-backed party fared poorly in national elections, has persecuted its political opponents. Suu Kyi is serving 26 years in prison on what are widely viewed as politically motivated charges. The military takeover has triggered a multi-front insurgency. Local organizations say 1.7 million people have been displaced by the conflict and more than 2,300 civilians have been killed.

The prisoner releases come just as Indonesia takes 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.

This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by By RFA Burmese.

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