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Myanmar junta releases four foreigners and 6,000 others in a mass amnesty, but thousands of political prisoners remain in jail

November 17th, 2022  •  Author:   ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights  •  4 minute read
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JAKARTA – As the Myanmar military released four unjustly jailed foreigners in a mass amnesty this Thursday, ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) wishes to congratulate their families. Yet this is no time to lower the guard with the military led by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, as the prisoners should not have been jailed in the first place and thousands of Myanmar political prisoners remain in the country’s jails, APHR said.

As part of a mass amnesty in which 6,000 prisoners were freed, the junta released Sean Turnell, an Australian citizen and economic adviser to former State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi; Vicky Bowman, a former British envoy; U.S. citizen Kyaw Htay Oo; and Toru Kubota, a Japanese filmmaker. Another prisoner released is the former Chief Minister of Tanintharyi Region, U Myint Maung. Meanwhile, over 13,000 political prisoners remain in Myanmar’s jails, where conditions are notoriously abysmal and the use of torture is routine, often resulting in gruesome deaths.

“This is a game the Myanmar generals have been playing for a very long time. In the midst of continuous atrocities, from time to time they make an apparent gesture of goodwill, minor in comparison with the crimes they commit on a daily basis, in order to alleviate international pressure and gain legitimacy. No one should fall for this trick; the global community should not be fooled into thinking that Min Aung Hlaing and his henchmen have changed their ways,” said Kasit Piromya, former Thai Minister of Foreign Affairs and APHR Board Member.

Sean Turnell was arrested on 6 April 2021, five days after the coup, under the accusation of trying to flee the country with secret information. Vicky Bowman and her husband, Htein Lin, were arrested in August this year on immigration charges, and Toru Kobuta was detained in July when he was filming a demonstration against the military.

While they have been released, others have not been so lucky. According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, at least 73 detainees have died in police or military custody in police stations, military interrogation centers, and prisons since the coup last year. They include four political prisoners executed in July: Phyo Zeya Thaw, former lawmaker for the National League for Democracy (NLD); the prominent activist Kyaw Min Yu, known as ‘Ko Jimmy’; Aung Thura Zaw; and Hla Myo Aung. These were the first known judicial executions in Myanmar since 1988, according to Amnesty International.

Since the coup on 1 February 2021, the Myanmar military has committed all kinds of atrocities, which the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has said may amount to “crimes against humanity and war crimes,” in order to consolidate its power against widespread popular resistance. The self-styled State Administration Council (SAC) led by Min Aung Hlaing has killed at least 2,465 people, launched indiscriminate aerial attacks in ethnic areas, and razed hundreds of villages to the ground, throwing the country into chaos, and leading it to the brink of becoming a failed state.

Meanwhile, the international response to the crisis has been sorely insufficient, as argued in a report launched recently by the International Parliamentary Inquiry into the global response to the crisis in Myanmar, an initiative organized by APHR and whose Committee is formed by eight parliamentarians from seven different countries in Africa, the Americas, Asia, and Europe.

“The international community has proven largely unable to respond effectively to the crisis. The junta’s international allies—most prominently Russia and China—have emerged as steadfast and uncritical supporters, supplying both weapons and legitimacy to an otherwise isolated regime. Foreign governments that profess support for democracy have not backed up their rhetoric with the same force of action,” said the report, titled ‘Time is not on our side’: The failed international response to the Myanmar coup.

The reasons for the mass amnesty, and the release of the three foreigners, remain unclear, but they come after an ASEAN Summit, in which its member states reaffirmed its commitment to the Five Point Consensus, an agreement signed in April 2021 to address the crisis in Myanmar that has been supported by the international community at large. The consensushas not produced any tangible results ever since, as APHR has repeatedly denounced.

“There is a legitimate concern that ASEAN member states are going to drink the kool-aid and treat the Myanmar junta with even kinder gloves after the release of these political prisoners. Against all reason, ASEAN is already sticking to an agreement that has proved an utter failure for over one and a half years, instead of doing the right thing to solve the crisis: put real pressure on the military, recognize the National Unity Government (NUG) as the legitimate authority in the country,” said Charles Santiago, former Malaysian Member of Parliament, APHR Chairperson, and one of the IPI Committee Members.


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