Myanmar's military-controlled government released an Australian academic, a Japanese filmmaker, an ex-British diplomat and an American on Thursday as part of a broad prisoner amnesty that also freed many local citizens held for protesting the army takeover.
The imprisonment of the foreigners had caused friction between Myanmar’s leaders and their home governments. Australia, the U.S. and rights groups welcomed the releases while calling for Myanmar to free others unjustly detained.
Australian Sean Turnell, Japan's Toru Kubota, Briton Vicky Bowman, and American Kyaw Htay Oo were among 5,774 prisoners being freed on the country’s National Victory Day, Myanmar's state-run MRTV reported.
Turnell, 58, an associate professor of economics at Sydney’s Macquarie University, had been serving as an adviser to Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of Myanmar's democratically elected government ousted by the military on Feb. 1, 2021. He was arrested by security forces in Yangon just days after the takeover and was sentenced in September to three years in prison on charges of violating the country’s official secrets law and immigration law.
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Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who is in Bangkok for a summit, described speaking to Turnell by phone.
“Occasionally in this job, you have a big moment. And I’ve just spoken to Sean Turnell, who has been released from 650 days of unfair, unjust imprisonment in Myanmar," Albanese told reporters, saying Turnell would travel overnight to Australia. “And this is just a wonderful outcome.”
Turnell’s wife Ha Vu said in a statement Friday that she was “overwhelmed with joy.”
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“After nearly 22 months apart, our priority right now is to spend time together as a family,” she said.
Kubota, a 26-year-old Tokyo-based documentary filmmaker, was welcomed by friends and supporters at Tokyo’s Haneda airport. He thanked them for their support and the Japanese government for its effort to win his release after three and half months in prison, compared to his “heavy” 10-year prison term.
Bowman, 56, a former British ambassador to Myanmar who was running a business consultancy, 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 naturalized 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 had been in custody since then.
U.S Secretary of State Antony Blinken, speaking at a news conference on the sidelines of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Bangkok, welcomed the release of the prisoners, calling it “one bright spot in what is otherwise an incredibly dark time where we see things going from bad to worse in Burma, including terrible violence that’s being done to innocent Burmese.”
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.
Myanmar did not release many details of the others being freed, but many were 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 — with a penalty of up to three years in prison.
Those being released included Kyaw Tint Swe, a former 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 was sentenced to 30 years for alleged corruption under Suu Kyi’s government, the MRTV report said.
Among the first set free from Yangon’s Insein prison were prominent author Maung Thar Cho, pro-democracy activist Mya Aye and Myo Nyunt, the spokesperson of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party, all of whom were arrested Feb. 1, 2021, the day the military seized power.
“I will always stand together with the people of Myanmar,” Mya Aye defiantly told the crowd outside the prison after his release.
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 takeover.
Of those arrested, 13,015 were still in detention as of Wednesday, AAPP reported. 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.
Amnesty International Australia's Tim O'Connor welcomed the decision to release Turnell, saying like many others that he should never have been arrested or jailed.
“Amnesty continues to call for the release of all those arbitrarily detained for peacefully exercising their human rights," he said. “Thousands of people jailed since the coup in Myanmar have done nothing wrong.”
Kubota was arrested 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 on incitement 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 licenses 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, also called Burma, since the military seized power. U.S. citizens Nathan Maung and Danny Fenster, who worked for local publications, and freelancers Robert Bociaga of Poland and Yuki Kitazumi of Japan were deported before serving their full prison sentences.
Associated Press writers Grant Peck in Bangkok, Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo and Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Australia, contributed to this story.