Myanmar’s military-controlled government has announced it is releasing and deporting a former British diplomat as part of a broad prisoner amnesty to mark the country’s National Victory Day.
Vicky Bowman, 56, a former British ambassador to Myanmar who had been running a business consultancy, 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.
She is expected to fly out of Myanmar later today.
Australian academic Sean Turnell, Japanese filmmaker Toru Kubota, American citizen Kyaw Htay Oo and 11 Myanmar celebrities were also among 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.
According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a rights monitoring organisation, 16,232 people have been detained on political charges in Myanmar since the army ousted the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi in February last year.
Of those arrested, 13,015 were still in detention as of Wednesday, the AAPP reported, and at least 2,465 civilians have been killed by security forces in the same period.
Amnesty International Australia’s Tim O’Connor welcomed the decision to release Mr Turnell, saying like many others, he should never have been arrested or jailed.
“Amnesty continues to call for the release of all those arbitrarily detained for peacefully exercising their human rights,” he said. “Thousands of people jailed since the coup in Myanmar have done nothing wrong.”
Japanese government spokesperson Hirokazu Matsuno said officials have been in touch with Mr Kubota, and the 26-year-old Tokyo-based documentary maker is believed to be in good health. He left Myanmar on a flight to Bangkok on Thursday and is due back in Japan on Friday morning, the Japanese Embassy in Yangon said.
Mr Turnell, 58, an associate professor in economics at Sydney’s Macquarie University, who had been serving as an adviser to Ms Suu Kyi, was arrested by security forces at a hotel in Yangon days after last year’s military takeover.
He was sentenced in September to three years in prison for violating the country’s official secrets and immigration laws. Ms Suu Kyi and three of her former cabinet members were convicted in the same trial, which was held in a closed court, with their lawyers barred by a gagging order from talking about the proceedings.
Fellow Australian economist Tim Harcourt said he was delighted to hear of his friend’s release, thanking the Australian government, activists and Mr Turnell’s friends and colleagues who had lobbied for his release.
“It’s a great relief to his wonderful wife Ha, his sister and father and all the family,” Mr 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,” he said.
Myanmar has been in turmoil since the takeover, which led to nationwide protests that the military government quashed with deadly force, triggering armed resistance that some UN experts now characterise as civil war.
Mr 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.
Since seizing power, the military has cracked down on the coverage of protests, raided media companies, detained dozens of journalists and revoked the licences of at least a dozen outlets.
Most of those detained are being held on the incitement charge for allegedly causing fear, spreading false news, or agitating against a government employee.
Some of the closed media outlets have continued operating without a license and many Myanmar journalists are working underground, moving from one safe house to another, hiding in remote border regions, or basing themselves in exile.
Kyaw Htay Oo, a naturalised 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.