Myanmar’s military junta said Thursday it is releasing and deporting four foreign prisoners as part of a broad amnesty that also includes dozens of political prisoners.
The four are Victoria Bowman, a former British ambassador to Myanmar; Sean Turnell, an Australian academic; Toru Kubota, a Japanese documentary filmmaker; and U Kyaw Htay Oo, a Burmese with US citizenship who had worked as a gardener at the home of the country’s imprisoned civilian leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
In all, the government said 5,774 prisoners would be released under the amnesty, which marks Myanmar’s national holiday. At least 53 of them were political prisoners, according to the Political Prisoner Relief Organization, an independent monitoring group.
Ms Bowman, 56, was the British Ambassador to Myanmar from 2002 to 2006 and founded the Myanmar Center for Responsible Business in 2013, which promotes good business practice.
In September, she and her husband, a prominent Burmese artist and former political prisoner, U Htein Lin, 55, were sentenced to one year in prison for violating immigration rules by living at an unregistered address. Both were listed for release on Thursday.
Mr Turnell, 57, an economics professor and Myanmar specialist at Sydney’s Macquarie University, had worked with Ms Aung San Suu Kyi as an economic adviser. A quiet technocrat who was not involved in politics was sentenced to three years in prison on September 29 for violating an official secrecy law and for violating visa regulations.
He had been arrested five days after the army seized power in a February coup last year that sparked months of protests and an ongoing crackdown that claimed thousands of lives.
Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the chief of the army and the general behind the coup, said Mr Turnell had been arrested in retaliation for Australia cutting its diplomatic representation in the country to protest the coup.
“If the Australian government had acted more positively, Turnell’s case would not have become so serious,” he said, according to the state newspaper New Light of Myanmar.
Penny Wong, Australia’s foreign minister, said on Twitter on Thursday welcomed the news.
“Professor Turnell remains our number one priority,” she wrote. “As such, we will not be commenting further at this stage.”
Ms Aung San Suu Kyi, 77, was convicted along with Mr Turnell and given the same sentence for violating official secrecy law. It was the latest in a series of sentences designed to detain her indefinitely. She is now serving a total of 23 years in prison and faces a further seven corruption cases that could add 105 years to her sentence.
Mr. Kubota, 26, the Japanese filmmaker, was sentenced to 10 years in prison on October 6 for violating sedition and communications laws.
Japan’s top government spokesman, Hirokazu Matsuno, told reporters he would be leaving Myanmar on a flight Thursday evening and could be in Japan as early as Friday.
Mr. Kubota was arrested on July 30 while filming an anti-military demonstration. It was part of a documentary he was preparing about “the loneliness of a Burmese man,” according to a GoFundMe petition created by his friends.
Mr. Kubota had made more than a dozen trips to Myanmar. The military claimed that Mr. Kubota had entered the country on a tourist visa, rather than a journalist visa, and that he participated in the demonstration and interacted with protesters during filming.
It was one of the harshest sentences since the coup, and Amnesty International denounced it at the time as confirming the Myanmar military’s reputation as “one of the best prison guards of journalists in the world”.
Among the released political prisoners was Ko Mya Aye, one of the student leaders of the first major anti-government uprising in 1988, who said, “I am always with the Myanmar people.”
Also released were Maung Thar Cho, a prominent writer, professor and politician; U Pinnyasiha, a well-known monk, and Dr. Myo Nyunt, a spokesman for the opposition National League for Democracy, who said: “This is good for me, but we still need something good for the country.”
Jubilant crowds surrounded some buses of the released prisoners, shouting and holding up their mobile phones to take pictures.
The releases appeared to be a public relations gesture aimed at a meeting of regional leaders in Thailand, said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division.
“But the impact will be limited unless Myanmar is willing to stop its wanton use of force against Burmese civilians,” he said. In July, in an escalation of repression against its political opponents, the military junta executed four pro-democracy activists, including the prominent dissident known as Ko Jimmy, and U Phyo Zeya Thaw, a former hip-hop artist who was elected to parliament.
“No one is willing to give the junta the benefit of the doubt after all the arrests, assaults and atrocities they have committed,” Robertson said.
Some Burmese were concerned that the mass release of common criminals would lead to an increase in crime.
“They release a few political prisoners to make themselves beautiful, but mostly they release criminals,” said a retired school teacher, U Kyaw Soe Oo. “After this kind of mass pardon, crime always increases.”
He added: “I cannot complain about these crimes to the police because the soldiers and police who are supposed to protect the people have been treating the people as enemies since the coup.”
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