Australia is facing renewed calls to introduce fresh sanctions on the military government in Myanmar to help free a Sydney academic. Sean Turnell, an economic adviser to the Southeast Asian nation’s ousted de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, remains in prison after being arrested earlier this year.
Colleagues and associates regard Australian academic Sean Turnell as a devoted friend to the people of Myanmar.
He grew up in Macquarie Fields, a working-class suburb of Sydney. His first job was at the Reserve Bank of Australia at age 19. He said his “great passion was money and banking.” He later became an academic at Macquarie University, specializing in research on the Myanmar economy.
He is a professor of economics and the highly regarded author of Fiery Dragons, a history of the financial sector in Myanmar. He has also advised the United States Congress on the Southeast Asian nation.
Turnell has been an adviser to various international agencies. His expertise and dedication caught the attention of Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of Myanmar’s National League for Democracy party. Turnell has been a long-serving economic aide to Suu Kyi. Both were arrested following February’s military takeover in Myanmar. They have reportedly been charged with breaking the country’s official secrets law.
Earlier this year, hundreds of academics signed a petition demanding his release, describing Turnell as the “nicest human you will ever meet.” His wife, Ha Vu, is also an academic at Macquarie University. She said she was “distraught” about his detention. His family said he had “fallen in love” with Myanmar.
The military crackdown against the pro-democracy movement is reported to have killed more than 800 people. Several thousand people have been arrested.
Australia has been criticized for not doing enough to secure Turnell’s release.
The Australian Council for International Development, an umbrella organization for international aid agencies, has said that while the United States, Britain, Canada and the European Union have imposed sanctions on senior Myanmar military officials since February, Canberra has not.
Tim Harcourt, a friend of Turnell’s and an economist at the University of Technology Sydney, believes Turnell is being treated well in prison.
“I understand it that Sean has been allowed to talk to his wife and he is reasonably healthy and getting along with all the guards and things. But obviously the legal situation is not real good,” Harcourt said.
There has been no comment from Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne. She has previously called for Turnell’s release, describing him as a “highly regarded member of the academic community in Australia.”
Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, was controlled by a repressive military government from 1962 to 2011.
A government effectively led by Suu Kyi came to power after elections in 2015.
Myanmar has a population of about 57 million people. It borders the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal, between Thailand and Bangladesh.