Bangkok: Myanmar’s military-controlled government announced Thursday it was releasing and deporting an Australian academic, a Japanese filmmaker, an ex-British diplomat and an American as part of a broad prisoner amnesty to mark the country’s National Victory Day.
Australian Sean Turnell, Japan’s Toru Kubota, Briton Vicky Bowman, and American Kyaw Htay Oo, as well as 11 local Myanmar celebrities, were among a total of 5,774 prisoners who were being released, Myanmar’s state-run MRTV reported.
The imprisonment of the foreign nationals had been a source of friction between Myanmar’s leaders and their home governments, which had been lobbying for their release.
Japan’s Foreign Ministry confirmed they had been informed of Myanmar’s plans to release Kubota, but had no further details, other than that the 26-year-old Tokyo-based documentary filmmaker was reportedly in good health.
Britain’s embassy in Yangon said Bowman had not yet been released from prison. Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade had no immediate comment, and the US Embassy in Yangon did not immediately respond to a request for information.
Turnell, 58, an associate professor in economics at Sydney’s Macquarie University, was arrested by security forces at a hotel in Yangon. He was sentenced in September to three years in prison for violating the country’s official secrets law and immigration law.
“As a friend of Sean Turnell and a fellow economist I am delighted to hear of his release,” said Sydney economist Tim Harcourt said in an email.
He thanked the Australian government, activists and Turnell’s friends and colleagues who had lobbied for his release and said he was looking forward to his longtime friend returning home to Sydney.
“It’s a great relief to his wonderful wife Ha, his sister and father and all the family,” Harcourt said.
“Sean’s heart was with the people of Myanmar to help lift them about of poverty and help Myanmar reach its economic potential. He should never have been imprisoned for doing his professional duty as an economist involved in development economics.”
According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a rights monitoring organization, 16,232 people have been detained on political charges in Myanmar since the army ousted the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi last February.
Myanmar has been in turmoil since the takeover, which led to nationwide protests that the military government quashed with deadly force, triggering armed resistance that some U.N. experts now characterize as civil war.
Of those arrested, 13,015 were still in detention as of Wednesday, the AAPP reported. Additionally, at least 2,465 civilians have been killed by security forces in the same period, the group says, though the number is thought to be far higher.
Kubota was arrested on July 30 by plainclothes police in Yangon after taking images and videos of a small flash protest against the military. He was convicted last month by the prison court of incitement for participating in the protest and other charges and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Since seizing power, the military has cracked down on the coverage of protests, raided media companies, detained dozens of journalists and revoked the licenses of at least a dozen outlets.
Most of those detained are being held on the incitement charge for allegedly causing fear, spreading false news, or agitating against a government employee.
Some of the closed media outlets have continued operating without a license and many Myanmar journalists are working underground, moving from one safe house to another, hiding in remote border regions, or basing themselves in exile.
Kubota was the fifth foreign journalist detained in Myanmar after the military seized power. US citizens Nathan Maung and Danny Fenster, who worked for local publications, and freelancers Robert Bociaga of Poland and Yuki Kitazumi of Japan were eventually deported before having to serve full prison sentences.
Bowman, 56, a former British ambassador to Myanmar was arrested with her husband, a Myanmar national, in Yangon in August. She was given a one-year prison term in September by the prison count for failing to register her residence.
Kyaw Htay Oo, a naturalised American, returned to Myanmar, the country of his birth, in 2017, according to media reports. He was arrested in September, 2021 on terrorism charges and has been in custody ever since.
Myanmar did not release many details of the other prisoners who were being freed, but almost all would have been being held on charges related to the protests, including Section 505(A) of Myanmar’s penal code, which makes it a crime to spread comments that create public unrest or fear or spread false news, and carries a penalty of up to three years in prison. Among those released were also 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 Tanintharyi Region who had been jailed for 30 years for corruption since 2020 under Suu Kyi’s government, MRTV announced.