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Relief as Australian Sean Turnell to be released from prison in Myanmar, but more needs to be done

In one of the few positive developments to come out of Myanmar in recent times, the military junta announced on Thursday it would be releasing almost 6,000 prisoners in an amnesty to mark Myanmar’s National Day.

Included in the announcement were four foreign nationals being held in Myanmar’s jails: Australian academic Sean Turnell; former UK Ambassador to Myanmar and Myanmar resident Vicky Bowman; Japanese documentary filmmaker Toru Kubota; and US citizen Kyaw Htay Oo.

Australia’s Foreign Minister Penny Wong reacted cautiously to the announcement, clearly waiting for further confirmation before celebrating the news.

Turnell had been in jail for more than 21 months, and in September had been sentenced to three years in jail for violating the country’s official secrets act. He was a close adviser to former Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whom the military deposed in a February 2021 coup.

At the time of Turnell’s sentencing, Suu Kyi had been sentenced to a total of 23 years in jail. It appeared likely that, with the 77-year old Suu Kyi removed from any role in the military’s next election charade, Turnell would be released soon afterwards. Suu Kyi has since been sentenced to a further three years’ detention.

However, the most likely prod towards the amnesty that included the foreign nationals was the politics surrounding the ASEAN-led round of summits over the previous weeks.

The ASEAN leaders statement was suitably bland, due to the need for consensus among all member states. But it did call for “concrete, practical and measurable indicators with a specific timeline” to achieve the five-point peace plan it has developed to tackle the country’s political crisis.

However, the important messaging came from ASEAN powerhouse Indonesia, outside of the formal channels.

The week before the summit, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi stated in no uncertain terms that the military junta was solely responsible for the failing peace process.

On the sidelines of the summit, Indonesian President Joko Widodo then proposed broadening the ban on political representatives at ASEAN events, arguing “we must not allow the situation in Myanmar to define ASEAN”.

The Indonesian proposal drew support from Malaysia and Singapore, but pushback from the more authoritarian member countries Cambodia, Laos and Thailand.

This division in the organisation means statements and actions are necessarily limited in their scope.

Nevertheless, the unusually strong statements from Indonesia, in addition to the persistence of the empty Myanmar chair at these events, will be causing concern within the junta.

Myanmar’s military – and other militaries in the region such as Thailand’s – can normally count on ASEAN eventually falling into line whenever they supplant elected governments with military regimes.

The fact that this time, 21 months after the coup, powerful ASEAN members seem to be digging in their heels in vehement hostility towards the military may have led the junta to reassess its situation.

As with previous military juntas in Myanmar, the current regime’s playbook is chequered with amnesties that are deployed strategically to ease diplomatic and domestic pressure, and it appears that is what has happened here.

While we should be extremely thankful that some political prisoners are being released from Myanmar’s jails, we should also recognise they should never have been there in the first place.

As a friend and colleague of Sean Turnell and Vicky Bowman, I will be relieved to see them return to safety.

However, there will remain thousands of other political prisoners in Myanmar’s jails even after this amnesty, not including those who have already been tortured to death.

Read more: As killings, beatings and disappearances escalate, what's the end game in Myanmar?

The international community’s focus understandably remains on Ukraine, but we need stronger action from our political leaders on Myanmar.

An inexpensive and relatively risk-free diplomatic manoeuvre would be to formally intervene to support the Gambia in the Rohingya genocide case against Myanmar at the International Court of Justice.

While 23 mostly-Western countries have intervened to support Ukraine’s genocide case against Russia, not a single country has intervened to support the case against Myanmar. Low hanging fruit indeed.

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