A year after Australian academic Sean Turnell was arrested in Myanmar following the military coup, his fate within a politically controlled and opaque judicial system remains uncertain. Charlotte Galloway argues fresh diplomatic approaches might be required to secure his release.
One year on from the military coup in Myanmar the country continues to suffer at the hands of a brutal and unwanted military administration. Lives have been lost, thousands arrested, countless people have been displaced. Many of us in the academic community can only watch from afar as friends and colleagues suffer immensely under this repressive and dangerous regime and are caught up in events beyond their control. This includes Sean Turnell, whose arrest in Myanmar on 5 February last year highlights the risks academics take when working to help improve the lives of those in the developing world.
Professor Sean Turnell, Australian academic and internationally recognised and respected expert on Myanmar’s economy, was in Myanmar when the coup occurred. I first met Sean in 2002 and since then have kept in contact – the world of Burmese scholars is relatively small, and we share international cross-disciplinary networks. I was delighted when Sean was appointed economic adviser to the National League for Democracy (NLD). He has always spoken publicly and frankly about Myanmar’s economy and is always impartial yet encouraging of Myanmar’s future development. Sean worked closely with senior government officials and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi. His chief role was to advise the government as it developed a contemporary and international financial system. My last personal communication with Sean was on 1 December 2020. Sean was enthusiastic about his return to Myanmar, which would coincide with the swearing in of the newly elected government on 1 February 2021. Little did we anticipate the events that followed. For most of us the last contact we have had with Sean is via his Facebook post of 2 February where he wrote: “Thanks everyone for your concern yesterday. Safe for now but heartbroken for what this all means for the people of Myanmar. The bravest, kindest people I know. They deserve so much better.” Three days later, Sean was detained by the military junta and has remained under arrest since.
Sean Turnell’s plight is sadly typical of the way Myanmar’s military leadership deals with those who stand in their way, and who they fear. The rule of law does not apply to their actions. With Sean detained without cause or charges, Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade tried unsuccessfully to secure either Sean’s immediate release or transfer to house arrest. These options became more distant once charges were laid. A small group of fellow academics has kept in contact with DFAT and given opinions on likely scenarios and strategies that may assist in securing Sean’s release and return to Australia. While we cannot know how much has been done, we do know that there has been no success.
Professor Sean Turnell, Department of Economics – Centre for Risk Analysis, Macquarie University; Economic Adviser to NLD, Myanmar. Image credit: Macquarie University.
Sean was not the only foreigner to be arrested after the coup. In March, two Australian business consultants who had lived in Myanmar for a decade were placed under house arrest after trying to board a flight. They were allowed to leave in early April. Japanese journalist Yuki Kitazumi was detained in Insein Prison for some weeks before being released and deported. Another journalist, American Danny Fenster, editor of the popular Frontier Myanmar, was detained in May when about to leave the country. He was tried, convicted and sentenced to 11 years jail in November before being pardoned and deported a few days later. In both of these cases there appears to have been direct government intervention. It was reported that Kitazumi was released by the military junta “in a gesture of friendship to Japan”. Fenster’s release came immediately after the well-publicised visit to Myanmar by former US ambassador to the UN Bill Richardson who apparently helped negotiate Fenster’s release. So why has Australia been unsuccessful in securing the same for Sean Turnell?
While we have no real idea of the thinking of those who have orchestrated chaos in Myanmar, Sean’s case is different. As an expert academic, Sean’s close connection with senior government officials in Myanmar ensures that he has in-depth knowledge of the country’s financial system. The potential implications of this for the military are clear. The exact charges against Sean are not publicly known but relate to violation of the official secrets law, potentially being in possession of classified government material. If this is the case, then it is a harsh reminder to all academics of the risks we take when working in developing countries, and in politically unstable environments. It is common for expert academic advisors to be given sensitive information during the course of contracted work – we can’t do our job otherwise. Academics also have a way of being objective, impartial and well-informed – an unwelcome trifecta for despotic administrations who have reason to fear the truth. Other cases of Australian academics who were convicted of spurious crimes include Kylie Moore-Gilbert who spent over two years in an Iranian jail on espionage charges, and Meimanat Hosseini-Chavosi who in 2019 was detained for a month, also in Iran, under suspicion on infiltrating state bodies. The positive here is that they were both released and returned to Australia.
Australia has little leverage in Myanmar. Foreign Minister Marise Payne has made very few public comments about Myanmar since the coup but perhaps the sentiment is shifting. On the anniversary of the coup, she issued a short but direct statement condemning the military violence and human rights abuses and called for the release of all those arbitrarily detained, including Sean. Recent reports that this year’s ASEAN Chair, Hun Sen, raised the issue of Sean’s detention on behalf of the Australian government in a recent meeting with Myanmar’s military leader General Min Aung Hlaing is encouraging. There are calls for Australia to appoint a special envoy to try and negotiate Sean’s release, as per the Fenster case – in the absence of any known plans, why not try it?
Sean’s case has been reported on widely. Within the academic community petitions have been signed by hundreds of concerned colleagues. Many know Sean and can attest to his dedication to Myanmar and his great personal qualities – he is generous, positive, and has sincere integrity. Others sign in solidarity of a fellow academic who has been detained in the course of doing the job they have been employed to do, and in support of academic freedoms. A Joint Statement released on 1 February by academic and research organisations succinctly summarises a shared outlook on the impact of the coup, and calls for the release of all those detained illegally, including Sean.
For many of us, while the coup was sudden, there has always been the possibility that Myanmar could turn on a penny. Such is the complexity of Myanmar. Likewise, it may be that the next thing we hear is Sean is on a plane home. I sincerely hope so. In the meantime, we must continue to keep the situation in Myanmar in the public eye and hold those responsible for the chaos to account.
Dr Charlotte Galloway is Honorary Associate Professor, College of Arts and Social Sciences, and a Board Member of the ANU Myanmar Research Centre, College of Asia and the Pacific.
Banner image: National League for Democracy (NLD) supporters protest the arrest of Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, Mandalay, Myanmary - July 18, 2021. Credit: Sai Han One, Shutterstock.