‘A remarkable man’: Anthony Albanese confirms release of Sean Turnell from Myanmar jail

PM pays tribute to foreign minister Penny Wong for diplomacy that led to freeing of Australian economist after 650 days

Anthony Albanese has paid tribute to his foreign minister Penny Wong and to regional neighbours while confirming that the economist Sean Turnell has been released from prison in Myanmar and is on his way home to Australia.

Australia’s prime minister spoke to Turnell – a former adviser to the democratically elected civilian government led by ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi – after arriving in Bangkok on Thursday night.

Earlier in the day, Myanmar’s state-run MRTV foreshadowed Turnell’s release by reporting that a number of foreign nationals, including the Australian academic, would be freed as part of a national holiday.

Following a military coup in the country last year, Turnell was detained by the junta, charged with violating Myanmar’s secrets act, and sentenced in September to three years in prison.

Turnell landed in Bangkok last night and was receiving a medical evaluation before being flown home to Australia.

Wonderful news - Professor Sean Turnell is free and on his way home to his family. I’ve just had the chance to speak with him.

I thank everyone who worked tirelessly for his release, including @DFAT staff like our Head of Mission in Myanmar, Angela Corcoran, pictured here. pic.twitter.com/TeWUgZYpiV

— Senator Penny Wong (@SenatorWong) November 17, 2022

Albanese lobbied for Turnell’s release during the Asean and East Asia summits in Phnom Penh last weekend, engaging both the Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen and the prime minister of Vietnam, Phạm Minh Chính. The prime minister said the Thai government had also applied diplomatic pressure to the military junta on Australia’s behalf.

Asean has been criticised for failing to bring sufficient pressure to bear on the military regime in Myanmar.

But Asean leaders did use the summit last weekend to warn the junta to make progress with a peace plan or be excluded from the grouping of south-east Asian leaders. Myanmar’s chair sat empty at last weekend’s summit in Cambodia.

Albanese said the public pressure at the summit and the prospect of being isolated and excluded in the region likely hastened the positive decision, and he characterised Wong’s campaign to free the academic as been relentless.

Relaying the news to travelling reporters on Thursday night, Albanese said: “Occasionally in this job you have a big moment, and I’ve just spoken to Sean Turnell who has been released from 650 days of unfair, unjust imprisonment in Myanmar and he has now landed and is well in Bangkok.”

The prime minister relayed a personal message from the academic to the Australian people. Turnell said Australians had never given up hope that he would be released, and he was profoundly grateful for a persistent public campaign for justice. “People have been wonderful,” he told Albanese during their phone conversation.

The prime minister said the newly released prisoner was in “amazingly good spirits” but it was important that he get a thorough medical assessment. “He’s not a large man for those of you who have seen photos of him, and he has clearly lost weight,” Albanese said.

He said a long period of arbitrary detention would have physical impacts “but it can have other health tolls as well, so we need to bear that in mind”. Albanese asked the media to respect Turnell’s privacy as he recovered from his ordeal.

Albanese said the academic had done nothing wrong. “He is a remarkable man and he was there doing his job as an economic policy adviser. He was doing his job – nothing more, nothing less – and he’s very good at his job”.

Turnell’s release and transfer to Bangkok comes as Albanese is set to attend his third international summit, Apec, in the Thai capital. Australia’s prime minister attended the gala dinner of the summit shortly after his arrival on Thursday night.

Albanese’s summit season began with Asean a week ago. He then travelled to Bali for the G20 summit, where he held a number of bilateral meetings including the first meeting between an Australian prime minister and the Chinese president since 2016.

During the past week, he has met the US president Joe Biden, regional peers, and European leaders including the president of France, Emmanuel Macron and the new British prime minister Rishi Sunak, discussing defence and security cooperation, climate change and other mutual interests.

Albanese will meet the prime minister of Thailand Prayut Chan-o-cha and participate in Apec sessions on Friday.

Contributor

Katharine Murphy Political editor in Bangkok

The GuardianTramp

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