Sean Turnell reunited with wife in Australia after two years in Myanmar prison

Economic adviser to deposed leader Aung San Suu Kyi was described as being in ‘amazingly good spirits’ by Anthony Albanese

Having spent 650 days in a Myanmar prison accused of violating state secrets, Australian economist Prof Sean Turnell was asked by a military government official as he was escorted out of the country, “Do you hate Myanmar now?”

“I never hate Myanmar,” Turnell replied. “I love the people of Myanmar and it’s always like that.”

Turnell, an economic adviser to the democratically elected leader of Myanmar Aung San Suu Kyi who was deposed in a coup in February 2021 – is now back in Australia.

Turnell was one of nearly 6,000 political prisoners released by the military junta as part of an amnesty marking Myanmar’s national day.

Turnell’s wife, Dr Ha Vu, related the story of Turnell’s undiminished love for Myanmar – to which he has dedicated much of his professional life assisting its modernisation – in a Facebook post.

After being deported from Myanmar to Bangkok, Turnell flew overnight to Australia, landing in Melbourne on Friday morning to be reunited with his wife and family.

Vu said she was “over the moon” at her husband’s sudden release.

“I am overwhelmed with joy at the news that my beloved husband, Sean, is coming home,” she said. “After nearly 22 months apart, our priority right now is to spend time together as a family.”

The Australian prime minister, Anthony Albanese, spoke to Turnell by phone and said the 58-year-old was in “amazingly good spirits”.

“He’s a remarkable man and he was [in Myanmar] doing his job as an economic policy adviser – nothing more, nothing less,” Albanese said from Bangkok where he is attending the Apec summit.

Turnell told Albanese the Australian embassy in Myanmar regularly delivered food to Insein prison where he was being held in tote bags emblazoned with the Australian crest.

“He said that normally his food would be served in a bucket but he would get this food and … he would put the tote bags where the bars were on the cell in which he was being detained so that both he could see – and the guards who were detaining him could see – the Australian crest, so that he could keep that optimism,” Albanese said.

“The Australian crest, of course, with the kangaroo and emu that don’t go backwards.”

Turnell, who lives in Albanese’s Sydney electorate of Grayndler, made jokes and even apologised for not voting in the election. “I assured him he wouldn’t be fined and that it was understandable,” the prime minister said.

An economist at Sydney’s Macquarie University, Turnell had served as an economics adviser to the democratically elected government of Myanmar. He was first detained on 6 February last year less than a week after the military coup.

Turnell was later charged with violating Myanmar’s Official Secrets Act. He denied the charge saying the documents were not confidential but economic recommendations he had provided to the government. He pleaded not guilty but was convicted in a closed trial and sentenced in September to three years in prison.

Other foreign political prisoners released on Thursday included former UK ambassador to Myanmar Vicky Bowman and her husband, Htein Linn, Japanese film-maker Toru Kubota, and American botanist Kyaw Htay Oo.

The Asia director at Human Rights Watch, Elaine Pearson, said news of the amnesty for those prisoners was an immense relief for their families, but also a reminder that thousands more Myanmar citizens remained detained in horrific conditions without strong international advocacy.

“Sean Turnell, Vicky Bowman, Htein Linn, Toru Kubota, and Kyaw Htay Oo should never have spent one second in prison,” Pearson said.

“Their arrests were part of sweeping and arbitrary arrests by a junta that has squashed any perceived criticism or dissent. Australia, the US, the US, and other governments should demand the Myanmar military immediately release all political prisoners since the coup.”

The impact director for Amnesty International Australia, Tim O’Connor, said Turnell should never have been arrested and was denied a fair trial.

“Amnesty continues to call for the release of all those arbitrarily detained for peacefully exercising their human rights,” he said.

O’Connor said Myanmar had a history of releasing prisoners at politically opportune times but that this amnesty – in the midst of the Apec meeting – should not mask the crimes of the military junta since its illegal coup.


Ben Doherty

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Wife of Australian economist imprisoned in Myanmar says family is heartbroken by three-year sentence
Ha Vu pleads for Prof Sean Turnell’s release after secret trial which Australian diplomats and journalists were banned from

Ben Doherty and Rebecca Ratcliffe

30, Sep, 2022 @7:03 AM

Article image
‘A remarkable man’: Anthony Albanese confirms release of Sean Turnell from Myanmar jail
The prime minister pays tribute to foreign minister Penny Wong for diplomacy that led to freeing of Australian economist after 650 days

Katharine Murphy Political editor in Bangkok

17, Nov, 2022 @2:12 PM

Article image
Australia’s Rohingya call for international action on Myanmar refugee crisis
Refugee advocates say Australia should consider a special resettlement program as UN warns military attacks on ethnic minority risks becoming ethnic cleansing

Ben Doherty

07, Sep, 2017 @6:59 AM

Article image
Aung San Suu Kyi and Australian adviser handed three years’ jail after secret trial
Myanmar junta’s sentencing of ousted leader and economic adviser Sean Turnell described as ‘cruel injustice’

Rebecca Ratcliffe and agencies

29, Sep, 2022 @4:49 AM

Article image
Australia to train Myanmar military despite ethnic cleansing accusations
Defence department spend continues despite claims treatment of Rohingya bears ‘hallmarks of a genocide’

Elise Thomas

05, Mar, 2018 @5:00 PM

Article image
Myanmar: Australian adviser to Aung San Suu Kyi, Sean Turnell, 'being detained'
Economist from Macquarie University tells Reuters news agency ‘I am fine and strong and not guilty of anything’

Guardian reporter in Yangon and agencies

06, Feb, 2021 @6:06 AM

Article image
Marise Payne calls in Myanmar ambassador after Australian adviser to Aung Sun Suu Kyi detained
Foreign affairs minister says Australian government ‘deeply concerned’ about reports Sean Turnell has been detained in Myanmar

Elias Visontay

07, Feb, 2021 @12:32 AM

Article image
Australia should target Myanmar ‘gang leader’ for sanctions, UN expert says
Exclusive: special rapporteur Tom Andrews says crimes against humanity are happening ‘before our very eyes’ and calls for urgent action against military junta

Daniel Hurst Foreign affairs and defence correspondent

14, Apr, 2021 @5:30 PM

Article image
‘Shameful inaction’: Myanmar civil groups urge Australia to sanction coup generals
Almost 400 organisations say Morrison government’s decision not to impose sanctions is disappointing and emboldens military junta

Ben Doherty

17, May, 2021 @5:30 PM

Article image
Australia urged to cut ties with Myanmar military over Rohingya atrocities
Amnesty pushes for support to try 13 security officials in the international criminal court

Ben Doherty

27, Jun, 2018 @3:13 AM