BANGKOK — Myanmar’s military-controlled government announced Thursday it was releasing and deporting an Australian academic, a Japanese filmmaker, an ex-British diplomat and an American as part of a broad prisoner amnesty to mark the country’s National Victory Day.
Australian Sean Turnell, Japan’s Toru Kubota, Briton Vicky Bowman and American Kyaw Htay Oo, as well as 11 local Myanmar celebrities, were among a total of 5,774 prisoners who were being released, Myanmar’s state-run MRTV reported.
The imprisonment of the foreign nationals had been a source of friction between Myanmar’s leaders and their home governments, which had been lobbying for their release.
Japan’s Foreign Ministry confirmed it had been informed of Myanmar’s plans to release Kubota, but had no further details, other than that the 26-year-old Tokyo-based documentary filmmaker was reportedly in good health.
Britain’s embassy in Yangon said Bowman, a former British ambassador to Myanmar, had not yet been released from prison. Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade had no immediate comment, and the U.S. Embassy in Yangon did not immediately respond to a request for information.
Turnell, 58, an associate professor in economics at Sydney’s Macquarie University, was arrested by security forces at a hotel in Yangon. He was sentenced in September to three years in prison for violating the country’s official secrets law and immigration law.
“As a friend of Sean Turnell and a fellow economist I am delighted to hear of his release,” Sydney economist Tim Harcourt said in an email.
He thanked the Australian government, activists and Turnell’s friends and colleagues who had lobbied for his release and said he was looking forward to his longtime friend returning home to Sydney.
“It’s a great relief to his wonderful wife Ha, his sister and father and all the family,” Harcourt said.
“Sean’s heart was with the people of Myanmar to help lift them out of poverty and help Myanmar reach its economic potential. He should never have been imprisoned for doing his professional duty as an economist involved in development economics.”
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 ousted the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi last February.
Myanmar has been in turmoil since the takeover, which led to nationwide protests that the military government quashed with deadly force, setting off armed resistance that some U.N. experts now characterize as civil war.
Of those arrested, 13,015 were still in detention as of Wednesday, the AAPP reported. Additionally, 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.
Kubota was arrested on 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 of incitement for participating in the protest 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.
Bowman, 56, 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 court 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 has been in custody ever since.