Relatives stand outside Insein Prison as they wait for the release of prisoners in a National Day amnesty. (AFP)

Political prisoners including Bowman and Turnell walk free on National Day

Myanmar’s military says it has released almost 6,000 prisoners, including a former British ambassador, a Japanese journalist and an Australian economics adviser, in an amnesty to mark National Day.


Former British envoy Vicky Bowman, Australian economics adviser Sean Turnell and Japanese journalist Toru Kubota were today freed by Myanmar’s military regime.

All three will be deported, the junta said without specifying a date.

Around 200 people had gathered outside Insein Prison in Yangon in the hope their loved ones would be among those released, said reporters who also saw several yellow buses enter the sprawling compound.

One woman, who did not want to give her name for fear of reprisals, said she was waiting for her husband, who was halfway through a three-year sentence for encouraging dissent against the military.

“Before, he was a USDP supporter. After the coup, he joined in the protests. I’m very proud of him,” she said. Altogether, 5,774 prisoners will be released, “including some 600 women”, the junta official alleged, revising an earlier figure of about 700 women.

The junta did not say in its statement announcing the amnesty how many of those pardoned had been arrested during the military’s crackdown on dissent.

Bowman, who served as ambassador from 2002 to 2006, was detained with her husband in August for failing to declare she was living at an address different from the one listed on her foreigner’s registration certificate.

They were later jailed for a year. Her husband, prominent Myanmar artist Htein Lin has also been released. His name is not on the deportation list presented by the junta.

Ties between Myanmar and its former colonial ruler Britain have soured since the military’s takeover, with the junta this year criticising the UK’s recent downgrading of its mission there as “unacceptable”.

Turnell was working as an adviser to Myanmar’s civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi when he was detained shortly after the coup in February 2021. He and Suu Kyi were convicted in September by a closed junta court of breaching the official secrets act and jailed for three years each.

“We welcome reports in relation to Professor Sean Turnell,” Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong said on Twitter. “Professor Turnell continues to be our first priority. As such, we will not be commenting further at this stage.”

Kubota, 26, was detained in July near an anti-junta rally in Yangon along with two Myanmar citizens and jailed for 10 years.

A source at Japan’s embassy in Myanmar said they had “been informed that Mr. Kubota will be released today” by junta authorities.

Kubota would leave for Japan “today”, they said.

Kubota is the fifth foreign journalist to be detained in Myanmar since the coup, after US citizens Nathan Maung and Danny Fenster, Robert Bociaga of Poland and Yuki Kitazumi of Japan – all of whom were later freed and deported.

At least 170 journalists have been arrested since the coup according to UNESCO, with nearly 70 still in detention.

‘Very proud of him’

San San Aye said she was waiting for her brothers and sisters to be released.

“Three of them were sentenced to three years each eight months ago,” she said.

“Their children are waiting at home. We will be more than happy if they are released.”

“Professor Turnell’s release is remarkable news after being held hostage by the regime, and his family and friends will be delighted,” added independent analyst David Mathieson.

However, he said the junta “shows no sign of reform and a mass amnesty doesn’t absolve them of atrocities committed since the coup”.

Since seizing power, the junta has announced a number of amnesties while continuing to detain and kill its opponents.

Amnesty International’s regional office spokesperson said: “Thousands of people jailed since the coup in Myanmar have done nothing wrong and should never have been imprisoned in the first place.”

Three former ministers from Suu Kyi’s ousted government and detained US-Myanmar citizen Kyaw Htay Oo would also be released, the junta official said.

More than 2,300 civilians have been killed since the military’s crackdown on dissent after it ousted Suu Kyi’s government, according to monitoring group the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

AAPP said on Wednesday that a record 13,015 political prisoners are detained or imprisoned in Myanmar.

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