'Not guilty of anything': the Australian adviser detained in Myanmar

Prof Sean Turnell is close to ousted democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and was taken by military in the days after the coup

“Nostalgia sure ain’t what it used to be,” Prof Sean Turnell posted wryly on Twitter, the morning after a coup plunged Myanmar back into military dictatorship, the dark state of affairs it has known for most of the last half-century.

Turnell, the director of the Myanmar Development Institute, and a key economic adviser to the democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi had lived in the capital Naypyidaw since 2017, and understood well the outsized influence of the military on political affairs, and its capacity for capriciousness.

He saw too, that the coup carried a personal risk.

“Thanks everyone for your concern yesterday,” he had written hours earlier. “Safe for now but heartbroken for what all this means for the people of Myanmar. The bravest, kindest people I know. They deserve so much better.”

Thanks everyone for your concern yesterday. Safe for now but heartbroken for what all this means for the people of Myanmar. The bravest, kindest people I know. They deserve so much better. pic.twitter.com/RA2YvCOEF7

— sean turnell (@SeanTurnell) February 1, 2021

Four days later he was on-air with the BBC when the knock came at his door.

“I’ve just been detained at the moment, and perhaps charged with something, I don’t know what that would be, could be anything at all of course,” he said.

His last words to air were: “Yes, I’m OK,” before he hung up.

Australian officials had reportedly been trying to reach Turnell in order to get him to the airport and out of the country. But the Myanmar military moved more swiftly.

He was initially placed under house arrest at his Yangon hotel, before being taken to a city police station for questioning.

Since his arrest, Turnell has sent a single message, to a reporter inside the country: “Fine and strong, and not guilty of anything”, along with a smile emoji.

In the days since: nothing.

Myanmar police have used water cannon against demonstrators protesting against the coup.
Myanmar police have used water cannon against demonstrators protesting against the coup. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Colleagues are worried that he has been arrested because “he knows too much” – potentially about military corruption – while his distraught family has pleaded for his release, saying they did not know where he was being held.

“He is warm and kind-hearted, generous, and always thinks about others before himself. Even now, wherever he is confined, we know that his thoughts and concerns are with those worrying about him,” Turnell’s wife, Ha Vu, an academic at Sydney’s Macquarie University, said in a statement.

Ha Vu said her husband – a father and “dedicated family man” – had “fallen in love” with Myanmar.

“And through working on and for it for more than two decades, he brought jobs, investment, and hope to many of the poorest people there without thought of reward or concern for his own advantage.”

Aung San Suu Kyi’s once-glowing international reputation has been tarnished over her refusal to condemn the brutal war waged against the Rohingyas by the military in 2017, but Turnell has remained unashamed of his association with “The Lady”, as she is known inside Myanmar, and where she remains widely adored.

He has regularly posted photos of them together on social media, and his Twitter profile picture was a selfie with her at an event. Now it’s a single shot of him on a grey background. He has been Aung San Suu Kyi’s “special consultant” since December.

Turnell is a well-known figure in Yangon – where his alliance with Aung San Suu Kyi is equally well-known – and would regularly hold public talks on developments in Myanmar’s economy, drawing significant crowds from across the country’s tight-knit expatriate community, and its domestic elite.

A Yangon-based corporate executive, who asked for anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the situation, said the coup has worried foreign consultants and investors supporting government reforms.

“The new regime pledged to welcome foreign direct investment. That would have been very difficult even without detaining Sean, given the political taint of the junta,” the executive said.

“By detaining an Australian economist, what message is the regime sending to international investors and foreign chambers of commerce in Myanmar?

“Even when we disagreed, he was always personable and friendly. But whether one agreed with Sean’s diagnosis on the economy is irrelevant. The point is the military junta should immediately release him.”

Australia’s foreign affairs minister, Marise Payne, said the Australian government had demanded Turnell’s “immediate release”, and that she was seeking to speak with Myanmar’s newly appointed foreign minister to press his case further.

Asked about Australia’s efforts to get Turnell out of the country, Payne declined to provide details.

“We were certainly supporting Prof Turnell and a number of other Australians in Yangon to support them to the best of our ability and to ensure they are as safe as possible.”

Aung San Suu Kyi’s picture held by protesters
Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian government was ousted on 1 February. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

A statement signed by 150 scholars on Myanmar has opposed the coup and condemned the arrest of Turnell, who had “put his academic career … on hold to help reform the country’s economy and improve the people’s livelihoods”.

Dr Lee Jones, a reader at Queen Mary University of London, signed the statement. He said he and Turnell met in 2019 at a conference on Myanmar democratic reforms in the UK.

“I know Sean has always been very passionate about the cause of democracy in Myanmar. Indeed, his scholarly work on Myanmar’s economy was constantly coloured by his opposition to the then-military regime.

“Subsequently, he has basically put on hold his academic career in Australia in order to help support the reform process in Myanmar, moving there with his wife, Ha Vu.”

Jones said Turnell was a “somewhat controversial figure” among some activist circles over his closeness to Aung San Suu Kyi, and his refusal to criticise the military’s treatment of the Rohingya, or the NLD government’s response to military atrocities.

“I worry that Sean has been arrested because he knows too much. He has been a senior economic policymaker for the NLD for five years, and in that context has looked closely at various crony businesses, high-profile projects, and so on.

“He keeps his cards very close to his chest, but presumably he has acquired information that could be very damaging for certain military and business interests. This could complicate efforts to secure his release.”

Jones said hundreds across the world were rallying in support of Turnell, many of whom had disagreed with him over economic policy or NLD government failings.

“No one deserves to be imprisoned without charge.”

Agencies contributed to this report


Ben Doherty and a Guardian reporter in Yangon

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