- Some prisoners are seen leaving Yangon prison on a bus
- Opponents of the military council welcome the pardon, and question the motive
- Turnel Bowman headed to Thailand – The Source
- Launch of Japanese arms maker Kubota-Kyudo
(Reuters) – Myanmar’s military rulers have pardoned Australian economist Sean Turnell and former adviser to democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, state media reported on Thursday, among some 6,000 prisoners to be released on a national holiday.
A diplomatic source told Reuters that Tornell, as well as the former British ambassador to Myanmar, Vicky Bowman, were released and left Myanmar by plane, adding that they were scheduled to head to Thailand.
Kyodo news agency, citing sources, reported that Japanese director Toru Kubota has been released.
State media said the foreigners were pardoned “for relations with other countries and also for humanitarian purposes” and asked to leave the country.
Myanmar has been in turmoil since the military coup in February last year, when it arrested civilian leaders including Nobel laureate Suu Kyi, ending a decade of provisional democracy.
The coup sparked nationwide protests that were often violently shut down, leading to thousands of arrests and fueling the armed resistance movement.
Two witnesses told Reuters they saw a bus leaving the notorious Insein prison in the commercial capital Yangon on Thursday afternoon with some of those named in the amnesty on board.
Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong had earlier welcomed the reports about Turnell, who was convicted of breaching the State Secrets Act and sentenced in September to three years in prison.
Earlier this month, Wong said Australia was considering imposing sanctions on Myanmar.
Myanmar’s shadow government of National Unity said it was relieved by the amnesty, but said the junta should not deceive the world.
“These types of hostage-taking tactics by the junta should not fool the international community into thinking that the military has changed colors,” said Htin Lien Aung, minister and spokesperson for the Government of National Unity.
Bowman, Britain’s ambassador from 2002 to 2006 and now head of a group promoting ethical business in Myanmar, has been imprisoned for immigration violations.
Her husband, Burmese artist Ko Htin Lin, was also on the list of people to be released. The diplomatic source did not say whether he was with Bowman when she was released or on the plane with her. US citizen Kyaw Htay O was among those pardoned.
Kubota was sentenced last month 10 years in prison To breach sedition and communications laws.
Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said earlier Thursday that the government has informed Kubota is in good health and will return home on Friday.
“We will continue to demand that Myanmar take specific and appropriate measures to rebuild a democratic society and solve problems peacefully and earnestly,” Matsuno said.
5,774 prisoners were pardoned. Others to be released include 11 celebrities as well as Kyaw Tint Swee, a former minister and close aide to Suu Kyi, according to state media.
Witnesses in Insein prison said former ruling party spokesman Myo Nyunt and prominent democracy advocate Mia Aye were among those seen leaving the prison.
“I will be with the people of Myanmar no matter what,” said Mya Aye.
A spokesman for the military council did not return telephone calls to Reuters seeking comment.
The Association for Assistance to Political Prisoners, which has been documenting the military crackdown, said the military council had released the foreigners to ease political pressure.
“Once again, political prisoners are being used as bargaining chips,” she added.
People should not be jailed for expressing their political views, said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
“One hopes that this release is not a one-time event, but rather the beginning of a process by the military council to release all political prisoners,” he told Reuters.
Reporting by Reuters staff. Writing by Kanupriya Kapoor and Martin Beatty; Editing by Lincoln Feast, Simon Cameron Moore, William Maclean
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