Myanmar Frees Former British Ambassador and Others in Amnesty
Myanmar’s military junta said Thursday it was releasing and expelling 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 United States citizenship who had been working as a gardener at the home of the country’s imprisoned civilian leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
Altogether, the government said 5,774 prisoners were to be released in the amnesty, which marks Myanmar’s National Day. At least 53 of them were political prisoners, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, an independent monitoring group.
Ms. Bowman, 56, had served as the British ambassador to Myanmar from 2002 to 2006 and in 2013 founded the Myanmar Center for Responsible Business, which encourages good business practices.
In September, she was sentenced to one year in prison along with her husband, a prominent Burmese artist and former political prisoner, U Htein Lin, 55, for violating immigration regulations by living at an unregistered address. Both were on the list for release on Thursday.
Mr. Turnell, 57, a professor of economics and a Myanmar specialist at Macquarie University in Sydney, had worked with Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi as an economic adviser. A low-key technocrat who was not involved with politics, he was sentenced on Sept. 29 to three years in prison for violating an official secrets act and for violations of visa regulations.
He had been arrested five days after the military seized power in a February coup last year that set off months of protests and a continuing crackdown that has taken thousands of lives.
Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the head of the army and the general behind the coup, said Mr. Turnell had been arrested in retaliation for Australia’s downgrading of its diplomatic representation in the country to protest against 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-owned newspaper, New Light of Myanmar.
Penny Wong, the Australian foreign minister, said on Twitter on Thursday that she welcomed the news.
“Professor Turnell continues to be our first priority,” she wrote. “As such we will not be commenting further at this stage.”
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, 77, had been sentenced along with Mr. Turnell and received the same sentence for violating the official secrets act. It was the latest in a series of convictions that appeared designed to keep her in detention indefinitely. She is now serving a total of 23 years prison and faces an additional seven corruption cases that could add 105 years to her sentence.
Mr. Kubota, 26, the Japanese filmmaker, was sentenced on Oct. 6 to 10 years in prison for violating sedition and communications laws.
Japan’s top government spokesman, Hirokazu Matsuno, told reporters he was due to leave Myanmar on a flight Thursday night and could be in Japan as soon as Friday.
Mr. Kubota was detained on July 30 while filming a demonstration against the military. It was part of a documentary he was preparing about “the loneliness of a Burmese man,” according to a GoFundMe petition that had been prepared by his friends.
Mr. Kubota had made more than a dozen trips to Myanmar. The military asserted that Mr. Kubota had entered the country on a tourist visa, rather than a journalist visa, and that he was participating in the demonstration and communicating with protesters while filming.
His was one of the harshest sentences handed down since the coup, and Amnesty International denounced it at the time as cementing the Myanmar military’s reputation as “one of the top jailers of journalists in the world.”
Among the political prisoners released was Ko Mya Aye, one of the student leaders of the first major uprising against the government, in 1988, who said, “I am always together 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 good for the country.”
Jubilant crowds surrounded some of the buses carrying the released prisoners, shouting and holding up their cellphones to take pictures.
The releases appeared to be a public relations gesture directed at a meeting of regional leaders in Thailand, said Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch.
“But the impact will be limited unless Myanmar is prepared to cease its wanton use of violence 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 prepared to give the junta the benefit of the doubt after all the arrests, attacks and atrocities they have committed,” Mr. Robertson said.
There was concern among some Burmese that the mass releases of common criminals would bring a rise in crime.
“They release a few political prisoners to make themselves look good but mostly they are releasing criminals,” said a retired schoolteacher, U Kyaw Soe Oo. “After this kind of mass pardon, crime always increases.”
He added: “I can’t 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.”