A former British envoy, an Australian economic adviser, and a Japanese journalist flew to Thailand late Thursday after being freed by Myanmar’s junta in an amnesty that pardoned almost 6,000 prisoners in total.
Thousands have been jailed in a crackdown on dissent and public resistance since last year’s military coup.
First stop in Thailand for freed prisoners
Former British ambassador Vicky Bowman, Australian economic adviser Sean Turnell and Japanese journalist Toru Kubota touched down in Bangkok on Thursday evening.
Bowman, who wore a traditional Burmese dress, did not comment as she was escorted by British embassy staff through the airport to a connecting flight.
Bowman, British ambassador from 2002 to 2006, was jailed for a year along with her husband for failing to declare they were residing at a different address to the one on their foreigner’s registration certificate. The military said her husband, prominent Myanmar artist Htein Lin, would also be released.
US-Myanmar citizen Kyaw Htay Oo told AFP he was “very happy.”
“I haven’t thought what I’m going to do when I get back home,” he said. “What I know is Myanmar is still not free.”
Kubota travelled on to Tokyo, where he spoke to the press on landing early on Friday morning. He expressed his gratitude for his release after a comparatively brief three-and-a-half-month stint in prison.
“I was released so quickly thanks to supporters in Japan, the press and government officials who made efforts to resolve the situation,” he told reporters at Haneda airport.
Kubota became the fifth international journalist to be detained since the coup, all of whom have since now been released, when he was picked up at near an anti-government rally in Yangon.
Australian Turnell ‘in very good spirits’ — PM Albanese
Australian economist Sean Turnell had a longer stay behind bars. He had been working as an assistant to ousted democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi and was detained shortly after the coup.
Foreign minister Penny Wong said he was “free and on his way to his family,” sharing an image of her with him.
Wonderful news – Professor Sean Turnell is free and on his way home to his family. I’ve just had the chance to speak with him.
— Senator Penny Wong (@SenatorWong) November 17, 2022
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said Turnell had made it clear in a conversation that he had been counting his 650 days in detention.
“He’s not a large man, for those of you who have seen photos of him, and clearly he has lost weight,” Albanese said. “But he was in very good spirits, it must be said, but he’s been checked over.”
“We need to make sure after 650 days — and he was clearly counting them, he said to me this is day 650 — that can have a physical toll, but it can have other health tolls as well.”
Albanese said Turnell would travel on to Australia escorted by Australian diplomats and that he was receiving medical support.
The prime minister also said the economist had not lost his sense of humour.
“He is from my electorate and apologised for not voting at the election,” Albanese joked. “I assured him he wouldn’t be fined, and that was understandable.” Voting is compulsory in Australia; not turning up without a good reason can result in a fine.
Myanmar’s amnesty coincides with the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Bangkok which several world leaders including Albanese are attending.
Junta says 5,774 pardoned on Myanmar’s national day
According to a statement from the junta in Myanmar, a total of 5,774 prisoners were due to be released on Thursday to mark the country’s national day, “including some 600 women.”
Three former ministers in Aung San Suu Kyi’s government, including close confidants Thein Oo and lawyer Kyaw Hoe, were among those released, as was a spokesperson for Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), Myo Nyunt.
The junta did not say how many of those being released had been arrested as part of the crackdown since the February 2021 coup.
UNESCO says that at least 170 journalists have been detained in Myanmar since the coup and that almost 70 remain in detention.
More than 2,300 civilians have been killed since the military crackdown on dissent after it ousted Suu Kyi’s government, according to a Myanmar monitoring group.
Meanwhile, the junta blames anti-coup fighters for the deaths of almost 3,900 civilians.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken welcomed the prisoner release but said there was no sign the junta was opening up more generally.
“It is one bright spot in what is otherwise an incredibly dark time,” Blinken told reporters at the APEC summit in Bangkok.
A spokesperson for Amnesty International’s regional office told the AFP news agency, “Thousands of people jailed since the coup in Myanmar have done nothing wrong and should never have been imprisoned in the first place.”