- Some prisoners seen leaving Yangon jail on bus
- Junta opponents welcome amnesty, skeptical or motive
- Turnell, Bowman headed for Thailand – source
- Japanese filmmaker Kubota released – Kyodo
Nov 17 (Reuters) – Myanmar’s military rulers granted amnesty to Sean Turnell, an Australian economist and former adviser to democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, among nearly 6,000 prisoners to be freed to mark a national holiday, state media reported on Thursday.
A diplomatic source told Reuters Turnell as well as former British ambassador to Myanmar, Vicky Bowman, had been freed and had left Myanmar by plane, adding they were due to fly to Thailand.
Kyodo news agency, citing sources, reported that Japanese filmmaker Toru Kubota had also been released.
The foreigners were given amnesty “for the relationship with other countries and also for humanitarian purposes”, and had been asked to leave the country, state media said.
Myanmar has been in turmoil since the military’s coup in February last year, when it arrested civilian leaders including Nobel laureate Suu Kyi, ending a decade of tentative democracy.
The coup sparked nationwide protests that were often violently shut down, leading to thousands of arrests and fueling an armed resistance movement.
Two witnesses told Reuters they saw a bus leave the notorious Insein Prison in the commercial capital Yangon on Thursday afternoon, with some of those named in the amnesty onboard.
Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong earlier welcomed reports about Turnell, who was found guilty of violating a state secrets law and sentenced in September to three years in jail.
Earlier this month, Wong said Australia was considering imposing sanctions on Myanmar.
Myanmar’s shadow National Unity Government said it was heartened by the amnesty, but said the world should not be duped by the junta.
“These types of hostage tactics by the junta should not fool the international community into believing that the military has changed its colours,” said Htin Linn Aung, an NUG minister and spokesperson.
Bowman, Britain’s ambassador from 2002-2006 and now head of a group that promotes ethical business in Myanmar, had been jailed for immigration violations.
Her Burmese artist husband Ko Htein Lin was also on the list of those to be freed. The diplomatic source did not say whether he was with Bowman when she was released, or on the flight with her. US citizen Kyaw Htay Oo was also among those included in the amnesty.
Kubota was last month sentenced to 10 years in prison for violating sedition and communications laws.
Japan’s chief cabinet secretary Hirokazu Matsuno earlier on Thursday said the government had been informed Kubota was healthy and would return home as early as Friday.
“We will continue to demand Myanmar to take specific and appropriate actions to rebuild democratic society, and to solve problems peacefully and seriously,” Matsuno said.
Altogether 5,774 prisoners were granted amnesty. Others to be released included 11 celebrities plus Kyaw Tint Swe, a former minister and a close aide to Suu Kyi, according to state media.
The witnesses at Insein prison said former ruling party spokesperson Myo Nyunt and prominent democracy advocate Mya Aye were among those seen leaving the jail.
“I will be together with Myanmar people no matter what the situation is,” Mya Aye said.
A junta spokesperson did not answer Reuters’ phone calls seeking comment.
The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), which has been documenting the military’s crackdown, said the junta had freed the foreigners to ease political pressure.
“Yet again, political prisoners are being used as bargaining chips,” it said.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said people should not be jailed for expressing political views.
“One hopes this release will not be a one-off event but rather the start of a process by the junta to release all political prisoners,” he told Reuters.
Reporting by Reuters staff; Writing by Kanupriya Kapoor and Martin Petty; Editing by Lincoln Feast, Simon Cameron-Moore, William Maclean
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