Myanmar Junta Releases Prisoners After International Pressure, Ahead of 2023 Elections

BANGKOK  — Myanmar’s junta Thursday released thousands of prisoners, including four foreigners as part of efforts to appease the outside world, experts and commentators say.

Former British Ambassador to Myanmar Vicky Bowman, Australian economic adviser to Aung San Suu Kyi Sean Turnell, U.S citizen Kyaw Htay Oo, and Japanese filmmaker Toru Kubota are included in a list of nearly 6,000 prisoners released according, to the junta, officially the State Administration Council.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, told VOA he hopes the release of the prisoners was a sign of things to come.

“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 in Myanmar. The international community should demand no less. People should never be criminalized and imprisoned for simply expressing political opinions and peacefully exercising their rights,” he said.

Tun Aung Shwe, the representative to Australia for the opposition shadow National Unity Government told VOA he was surprised at Turnell’s release.

“Sean is very special and the junta using him as a playing card of its hostage diplomacy game,” he said.

Myanmar has had mass prisoner releases before.

In October 2021, the junta pardoned and dropped the charges against thousands of prisoners but human rights groups said the move did not reflect broader change in the military’s approach.

Myanmar political analyst and Director of Communications at think tank Institute Strategy & Policy Myanmar (ISP), Aung Thu Nyein, cited that only a small proportion of political prisoners are usually freed in prisoner releases.

“Since the military coup, the junta announced 8 times of amnesty but included 8% of the political prisoners with many criminals. Lately, many arrested activists are accused of terrorism law and they would not be categorized as “political prisoners” by the junta and they will be difficult to release and could serve long-term imprisonment,” Aung Thu Nyein said via email.

International pressure has grown since the coup on the junta, which has been hit with Western sanctions while diplomatic scrutiny is increasing from neighboring nations, including exclusion of the country from the recent Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Cambodia.

The junta is preparing for new elections next year, despite widespread unrest, but Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah recently said that Malaysia wouldn’t support the regime’s election plan because some of the election rules were seen as biased.

Tun Aung Shwe said the junta sees releasing prisoners as one way to appease the outside world.

“I think the reason behind the amnesty is related to change of position among the ASEAN leaders. The junta’s ultimate aim is to hold the election next year and it needs endorsement from the international community. This amnesty is a move to response increasing pressure from ASEAN and looking for the international community’s positive view on its election plan,” he said.

Aung Thu Nyein shared a similar view.

“One of my presumptions is the prisoners’ release is also a test-run before the 2023 proposed elections. We can expect more prisoners [to be] release[d] if this attempt works smoothly at the end of the year [for] Myanmar’s Independence Day and [the] following Union Day on February 12, and March 27, Tatmadaw Day,” he told VOA.

Prisoners were given amnesty to mark a national holiday while the four foreigners were released “for the relationship with other countries and also for humanitarian purposes” according to state media.

Bowman was jailed in September by military authorities for breaching Myanmar’s immigration law. She had been Britain’s ambassador to Myanmar from 2002 to 2006.

Kubota was sentenced to 10 years in prison last month for violating sedition and communication laws.

Both arrived in Bangkok Thursday after being deported from Myanmar.

Turnell has been detained since February of last year before being sentenced to three years in prison in September for violation of the Myanmar’s Official Secrets Act. He arrived back in Australia on Friday.

Source: Voice of America