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Myanmar reportedly will release 4 foreigners as part of a broad prisoner amnesty

Prison security officials prepare for the release of inmates outside Insein prison in Yangon on November 17, 2022.
STR
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AFP via Getty Images
Prison security officials prepare for the release of inmates outside Insein prison in Yangon on November 17, 2022.

BANGKOK — Myanmar's military government said Thursday that it will release and deport several foreigners, including an Australian economist, an ex-British ambassador and a Japanese filmmaker. Myanmar media says the releases are part of a broader amnesty of thousands to mark the country's National Day.

Australian economist Sean Turnell was a prominent adviser to deposed leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was detained the day the military seized power on Feb. 1, 2021. The 58-year old Turnell was seized by security forces at a hotel in Yangon a few days later.

Both were convicted by a military-backed court of violating a state secrets law and sentenced to three-year terms. Though Turnell will now be deported, Suu Kyi has been convicted on several more charges and faces decades in prison, with several more court cases still pending.

Former British ambassador Vicky Bowman and her husband, artist Htein Lin, are also among those being released after being detained in August for immigration violations. Japanese filmmaker Toru Kubota is also being released and deported, according to state run media. Burmese-American Kyaw Htay Oo, a former 88 Generation student activist who returned to Myanmar from the U.S. in 2017, is also being released. The 88 Generation Students is a pro-democracy movement known for its activism against the country's military junta and is named after the 1988 student-led protests against the junta in the country.

Several prominent local celebrities are also among the more than 5,770 prisoners to be set free, according to state-run MRTV, all being released, state media reported, on "humanitarian grounds."

In July, Myanmar's military executed four opponents of the regime, the first executions in the country in several decades in an effort widely seen as an effort to intimidate opponents of the regime. The four had been convicted early this year in closed door trials. Two of them were prominent democracy activists. The regime said all four had been executed in secret for carrying out "brutal and inhumane terror acts," a charge rejected by their defenders.

Myanmar has been mired in chaos since the coup, with armed resistance to the military growing by the day and no clear path to victory for either side, either as the military ramps up its attacks against those that oppose it, especially in the so-called dry zone where that resistance has been fierce.

"They've been burning down hundreds of villages, thousands and thousands of homes, displacing a huge proportion of the population in that area in an attempt to make it just impossible for people to resist, to break the connection between the armed resistance forces and the local population," says Richard Horsey, senior Myanmar analyst for the International Crisis Group, who says 20 months after the coup, the situation for many of Myanmar's people is getting more bleak by the day.

"State services continue to be in a perilous shape. The health and education systems have almost collapsed," Horsey adds, "And there are millions of internally displaced people now as well across the country. So, for many people in many parts of the country, life is really very grim."

Today's prisoner release is an exception to that trend, even as the regime continues to ignore calls for it to implement a five-point plan it agreed to with the Association of Southeast Asia nations in April 2021 to bring an immediate cessation to the violence and begin a constructive dialogue among all parties to seek a peaceful solution to the crisis.

More than 16,200 people are thought to have been detained on political charges since the coup, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. Another 2,465 civilians have been killed since the coup, according to the group, which added that the figure is thought to be higher.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.