- Australian detained for 650 days for violating state secrets
- Opponents skeptical of the junta’s motives
- Turnell headed for Australia – PM
- Amnesty a bright spot in ‘incredibly dark time’ – Blinken
Nov 17 (Reuters) – Myanmar’s ruling army on Thursday released a former British ambassador, a Japanese filmmaker and an Australian economic adviser to deposed leader Aung San Suu Kyi, officials said, among nearly 6,000 prisoners covered by a mass amnesty.
Australia said economist Sean Turnell left Myanmar on Thursday and arrived in neighboring Thailand, while a diplomatic source confirmed former British envoy Vicky Bowman had also left the country.
Myanmar’s state-run MRTV showed footage of the couple, as did Japan’s Toru Kubota signing exit documents with officials. The United States said its citizen, Kyaw Htay Oo, was released.
Turnell was arrested a few days after the military seized power from Suu Kyi’s elected government in February last year, ending a decade of tentative democracy.
The coup sparked chaos and a bloody crackdown by the military against dissent, provoking international condemnation and sparking an armed resistance movement against the military.
Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese thanked the leaders of Thailand and Cambodia for pressuring the military to release Turnell, who was found guilty of breaching state secrets and sentenced to three years in prison in September.
“I just spoke to Sean Turnell, who has been released from 650 days of unfair, unjust detention in Myanmar,” Albanese told reporters in Bangkok, where he is attending the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit.
“He will travel to Australia at night to be with his family.”
State-controlled media said the amnesty included 5,774 prisoners and foreigners were released “for the relationship with other countries and also for humanitarian purposes”.
Speaking in Bangkok, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the release was “a bright spot in what is otherwise an incredibly dark time”.
“Whether this indicates anything more broadly about the regime’s intentions, I cannot tell you – too early to say.”
The shadow government of Myanmar’s National Unity, which supports the resistance movement, said it was strengthened by the amnesty, but said the world should not be fooled.
“This kind of junta hostage-taking tactics should not fool the international community into believing that the army has changed color,” said Htin Linn Aung, an NGG minister and spokesman.
A junta spokesman did not return Reuters calls for comment.
Bowman, the British ambassador from 2002-2006 who heads a group promoting ethical business in Myanmar, was convicted of immigration violations.
Kyaw Htay Oo was detained on terrorism charges, the media reported. Kubota was sentenced last month to 10 years in prison for violating sedition and communications laws.
Human rights groups have said their detentions, like thousands of others, were politically motivated. The junta has denied this.
Japan’s chief of cabinet Hirokazu Matsuno said earlier on Thursday that Japan “will continue to require Myanmar to take specific and appropriate measures to rebuild democratic society and resolve issues peacefully and seriously.”
Others covered by the amnesty included 11 celebrities plus Kyaw Tint Swe, a former minister and a close associate of Suu Kyi, according to state media.
Suu Kyi’s former ruling party spokesperson, Myo Nyunt, and prominent democracy advocate, Mya Aye, were among the witnesses who left Insein Prison in the largest city of Yangon.
“I will be with the Myanmar people whatever the situation,” Mya Aye said.
The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), which documents the military’s crackdown, said the junta released the foreigners to ease political pressure.
“Again, political prisoners are being used as bargaining chips,” it said.
Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch’s deputy Asia director, said people should not be jailed for expressing political views.
“You hope that this release is not a one-time event, but rather the beginning of a process by the junta to release all political prisoners,” he said.
Reporting by Reuters employees; Written by Kanupriya Kapoor and Martin Petty; Edited by Lincoln Feast, Simon Cameron-Moore, William Maclean
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