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.