Myanmar’s military leaders have finally released the Australian economist Sean Turnell, a former adviser to ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi, as part of a mass prisoner amnesty that saw nearly 6,000 others released from custody, Myanmar media reported today.
According to The Associated Press, the military junta’s spokesperson Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun confirmed Turnell’s release to local media outlets. He said that Japanese filmmaker Kubota Toru and former U.K. ambassador Vicky Bowman, as well as the American botanist Kyaw Htay Oo, were also among those released. All four foreigners were reportedly scheduled to be deported this evening to Bangkok.
The four foreign prisoners were released alongside 5,774 other prisoners as part of an amnesty for National Victory Day, the military said in a separate statement. The Associated Press cited state media reports saying that those released also included Kyaw Tint Swe, a former union minister for the office of the State Counselor; Than Htay, a former member of the Union Election Commission; and Lae Lae Maw, a former Chief Minister of Tanintharyi Region who had been jailed for corruption under Aung San Suu Kyi’s government.
The amnesty marks the end of a 21-month ordeal for 58-year-old Turnell, a former staff member of the Reserve Bank of Australia and associate professor at Macquarie University who took a job as adviser to Aung San Suu Kyi after her party’s thundering victory at the 2015 national election. The economist was arrested by security forces at a hotel in Yangon shortly after the coup that toppled Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) government in February 2021.
He was sentenced in September of this year to three years in prison for violating the country’s official secrets law and immigration law. The exact details of Turnell’s supposed offense were never fully made clear, though Myanmar state media claimed that he was attempting to flee the country with “secret state financial information.”
In a statement on Twitter, Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong said that the government welcomed the reports about Turnell, but that his safety “continues to be our first priority.” She added, “As such, we will not be commenting further at this stage.”
Kubota and Bowman were more recently detained; Kubota, 26, a Tokyo-based documentary filmmaker, was arrested on July 30 of this year by plainclothes police in Yangon after taking photos and videos of a small flash protest against the military junta. He was convicted last month of incitement for participating in the protest and other charges, and sentenced to 10 years in prison. A court later added another three years in prison for violating Myanmar’s immigration law.
Meanwhile, Bowman, 56, who served as British ambassador to Myanmar from 2002 to 2006 before going on to head a business advisory firm, was arrested in August in Yangon along with her husband Htein Lin. The pair were later sentenced to a year in prison for failing to register their change of residence. Htein Lin, an artist and former political prisoner, is also reportedly on the list of those to be released today.
The release of the high-profile prisoners comes fast on the heels of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in Phnom Penh. During the meetings, the nine other members of the bloc once again pressed Myanmar’s military to speed up its implementation of ASEAN’s stalled Five-Point Consensus peace plan, and hinted at the opening of talks with the opposition National Unity Government (NUG).
Probably less important than the incremental steps taken by ASEAN was this week’s passing of the bloc’s rotating chairmanship to Indonesia, which is likely to take a much more robust position on the conflict in Myanmar than this year’s chair, Cambodia. Throughout 2022, the Cambodian government has hewn to a strategy of pragmatic engagement with the military junta, while acquiescing to its insistence that ASEAN’s special envoy does not engage with NUG representatives.
Indonesia looks certain to take a less accommodating line. Ahead of last week’s meeting, the country’s Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi openly stated that the military junta was responsible for the failure of ASEAN’s Five-Point Consensus peace plan. Since last year, Indonesia, along with Malaysia and Singapore, has also urged the bloc to adopt a harder position toward the junta, including toward the rigged elections that the junta is planning in August 2023.
This week, Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah said that it was “completely illogical for Malaysia and ASEAN to support the election,” given the military’s overthrow of the country’s elected government last year – and it is not hard to see Indonesia following a similar line.
Given the timing, the high-profile prisoner releases likely anticipate the hardening of ASEAN’s line under an Indonesian chairmanship, and are intended to prevent wavering ASEAN member states from supporting stronger measures against the military junta.
Since the coup, the government has undertaken at least three other rounds of amnesty. One also followed last year’s ASEAN Summit, hosted by Brunei, from which the military junta’s political representatives were excluded from participating for the first time. This saw several well-known politicians, celebrities, film actors, and journalists set free.
The release of the four foreign prisoners is welcome news, especially for the friends and family that suffered the anguish of uncertainty during the months of their captivity. But none of this should be taken as a genuine sign of reconciliation on the part of the junta, nor that it intends on diverging from its chosen path. This is at best a tactical adjustment to the changing regional environment, geared toward ensuring its eventual violent victory over its rivals.