Prison officials prepare for the release of prisoners outside Yangon's Insein prison in February 2022
Yangon (AFP) - A former British envoy, an Australian economic adviser and a Japanese journalist left Myanmar Thursday as the junta released almost 6,000 prisoners, an AFP correspondent and diplomatic sources said.
The Southeast Asian country has been in turmoil since the military’s coup last year and a bloody crackdown on dissent during which thousands have been jailed.
Former British envoy Vicky Bowman, who was jailed for a year in September, was on board a plane that departed Yangon at 5:26 pm local time (1056 GMT), according to an AFP reporter on the plane.
Australian economics adviser Sean Turnell and Japanese journalist Toru Kubota were on the same flight, diplomatic sources told AFP.
Altogether, 5,774 prisoners will be released, “including some 600 women”, the junta said in a statement.
Three former ministers from Aung San Suu Kyi’s ousted government and detained US-Myanmar citizen Kyaw Htay Oo would also be released, a junta official said.
The junta said all four foreigners would later be deported although AFP could not confirm if Kyaw Htay Oo was on the flight.
The junta did not say in its statement announcing the amnesty 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.
They were later jailed for a year. Her husband, prominent Myanmar artist Htein Lin, will also be released, the military official said.
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 there as “unacceptable”.
Sean Turnell, a detained Australian adviser to Myanmar's deposed leader Aung San Suu Kyi, is being released from Insein prison in Myanmar
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.
Kubota, 26, was detained in July near an anti-government rally in Yangon along with two Myanmar citizens and jailed for 10 years.
A group of activists hold placards of Japanese journalists Toru Kubota, who will be released from prison, according to a junta official
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 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.
“Before, he was a USDP (military-backed political party) supporter. After the coup, he joined in the protests. I’m very proud of him,” she said.
Three buses left the main gate of the sprawling, colonial-era prison shortly after 3:00 pm local time (0830 GMT) and passed by a crowd of around 200 people waiting outside, an AFP reporter said.
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.”
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”.
Amnesty’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.