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Q&A: Suu Kyi Adviser Reflects on Prison Term, Myanmar's Struggle for Democracy

A screenshot of Sean Turnell, a former economic adviser to Myanmar's ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi, during an interview with VOA.
A screenshot of Sean Turnell, a former economic adviser to Myanmar's ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi, during an interview with VOA.

Australian academic Sean Turnell, a former economic adviser to Myanmar's ousted democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi, recently spoke with VOA via Zoom about his experiences during his 650-day imprisonment in Myanmar's Insein prison after being arrested in the aftermath of the February 2021 military coup.

Turnell, an economist at Sydney's Macquarie University, was convicted of violating Myanmar's Official Secrets Act and visa violations, resulting in a three-year prison sentence. He was tried alongside Suu Kyi, whom he spoke with frequently during his detention, and three former cabinet ministers.

In November 2022, Turnell was released and deported to Australia following a mass amnesty by the junta. However, Suu Kyi remains imprisoned, serving a 27-year sentence after being convicted of a string of criminal charges. Her supporters say the charges were fabricated to discredit her, and that she is being held in inhumane conditions with no contact with the outside world. Myanmar’s junta denies those accusations.

Turnell discussed his experiences during his incarceration, his regular interrogations and the individuals who provided him with support. He also discussed his weekly court meetings with Aung San Suu Kyi, whom he affectionately refers to as Daw Suu, throughout their year-long trial. In these meetings, Turnell gained a deeper understanding of Suu Kyi's perspectives on global events and her message to the people of Myanmar.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

VOA: Let's start with your book that is set to be released soon. The title is An Unlikely Prisoner and it’s about your experience in prison in Myanmar. You said that the best endorsement for your book came from Myanmar’s junta leader in Naypyidaw. He said, “Do not read this book.” Why don't military leaders want people to read your book?

Sean Turnell: I guess for the reason that I tell the truth — absolutely, bluntly — about the way I was treated but, much more importantly, how my Myanmar friends were treated. The book is a mix of my experience in the prisons, going on trial and so on but it's also very much a story of Daw Suu, and a story of Myanmar’s other reformers who were in prison with me. It's a book about me but it's, in some ways, much more a book about other people, particularly the really brave people of Myanmar, who saved my life, basically.

VOA: Can you talk about the most unforgettable experiences you had while in prison? You have mentioned that other political prisoners helped you there. Later you learned that among them a Muslim political prisoner was brutally killed after your release. How did that affect you?

Turnell: I guess the most notable terrible thing was hearing of the death of Khin Maung Shwe, or Jacoob, as I always knew him. He protected me, he looked after me. He had the cell next to me, so I was with him for six months in Insein prison at the start — this is 2021. Then, I was moved up to Naypyidaw to go on trial with Daw Suu and the other ministers. While I was up there, only a month after leaving Kim Maung Shwe in Insein, he was brutally murdered by some prison guards — and some prisoners that I think had been deliberately placed in the jail to do that deed. That was definitely a low point, and an event that touched me really deeply.

In terms of good things, I think I would just highlight the way that Myanmar people rallied to me and helped me. When I was moved into Insein for the very first time after spending two months in solitary confinement, I'd been really ill-treated, I wasn't feeling very good. As I was taken into the prison ward, this young man, Paing Ye Thu, came up to me and said, “Sean, you're OK now and you're safe. You're with us.” I'll never forget it because here was this guy who is in jail himself, and yet he's telling me that I'm safe now, because I was with them. And, sure enough, that is how it turned out.

FILE - A photo taken on Nov. 17, 2022, by Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade shows Australian economic adviser Sean Turnell, right, and Australian Chargé d'Affaires to Myanmar Angela Corcoran after Turnell's release from prison.
FILE - A photo taken on Nov. 17, 2022, by Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade shows Australian economic adviser Sean Turnell, right, and Australian Chargé d'Affaires to Myanmar Angela Corcoran after Turnell's release from prison.

VOA: Why did the military leaders target and arrest you right after the military coup in February 2021?

Turnell: I think they were desperate to try and create some sort of narrative that Daw Suu and the others were under the control of foreigners, and that these “evil foreigners” were there pulling the strings, which — all of the audience would know — the idea of Daw Suu being controlled by anyone, least of all someone like me, is so ridiculous. The other part of it, I think, is fear of foreignness — not just foreigners, but foreignness, foreign ideas. I think this regime is deeply xenophobic, and we can see this when we look at their actions. I don't think they really understand how the modern world works, and we can see that in their policies and complete lack of understanding of how they're viewed by the international community.

VOA: During your interrogation by the junta, what do you think they wanted to know about your role as economic adviser to Aung San Suu Kyi?

Turnell: I was severely ill-treated during my interrogation, but much better treated than Myanmar people were, so that's the first thing to say but I was ill-treated. I think it was to try and frighten me, to try and make me more pliable, get some admissions or something like that. It didn't work.

One of the documents that was presented to me was a document that had “confidential” written on it. They said to me, “How did you get this?” And I said, “Well, I wrote it, and I put ‘confidential’ on it.” They said, “Well, it doesn't matter. You shouldn't have had it, and you shouldn't have read it.”

At that moment, I thought, wow, we're really beyond the looking glass now, if you can't even read or have a document that you wrote. They wanted some basic narrative that conformed with this idea that somehow foreigners were controlling things, but it wasn't a genuine search for facts or anything like that.

VOA: People were really concerned about you, your health, because while you were Insein prison, the COVID 19 pandemic in Myanmar prisons was quite bad. How did you overcome this situation?

Turnell: Well, I didn't, basically, because I caught COVID five times. I wasn't able to protect myself against that, but having said that, again, I pay tribute to my fellow prisoners, and others, who helped me as much as they could. The vast majority of Myanmar people do not support this current regime at all, including prison guards and police officers. In fact, many of those people tried to protect me and protect other Myanmar people as well, when it comes to things like food and health. Obviously, they had very limited power in being able to do that, and they would be punished for any kindness that they extended if that was found out, but there were good people even amongst police and prison guards.

VOA: Do you think Aung San Suu Kyi knew that the people were actively opposing the coup when you appeared together in court in Naypyidaw? What did you talk about with her when you saw her there?

Turnell: Absolutely, yes, she knew full well what the people were doing. I'll never forget that she said to me that she was so proud of everyone. She was particularly proud of the young people. She was just so pleased to think that, even with just a brief experience of democracy, the people of Myanmar were willing to defend it, and value it. She was very heartfelt about it — very, very proud.

That came up in the very first meeting I had with her, but it came up multiple times because I met her once a week for an entire year as the trial went on. All her strength that we've seen down the decades was absolutely on display, and even though the conditions she was under were not very good — she'd already been sentenced multiple times by the time I met her — her biggest concern, always, was to lift the spirits of the rest of us. We'd get very down and she would always give us a lift up.

VOA: Can you recall what her main message was to the international community regarding that kind of military coup again in Myanmar?

Turnell: Yes, very much calling for the international community, firstly, to pay attention because she'd become aware that attention had drifted away from Myanmar. The world was paying great attention to Ukraine, of course, which was entirely reasonable, but similar attention needed to go to Myanmar as well. The suffering was just as great in Myanmar as it is in Ukraine.

VOA: So she knew about Russia’s war on Ukraine?

Turnell: That's right, yes. She had a number of channels of information but I was able to bring her some as well. We discussed many global events, and she was very concerned about them. We were both amazed and, I guess, just very downhearted at one level, just at the shape of the world — that so many things had gone wrong since the last time I'd spoken to her about these things beginning with COVID, and then, of course, going into Ukraine, and then, obviously, the coup itself in Myanmar above all.

VOA: Before the takeover of power, Aung San Suu Kyi's position on human rights was criticized by the international community. So, as her close adviser, how did you see her position toward the military at the time?

Turnell: This gives me opportunity talk about some of the things that Daw Suu was doing behind the scenes that nobody got to see. Of course, because of events in Rakhine, and other places as well, she copped a lot of criticism. But of course, people couldn't see what she was doing in the background, that she couldn't talk about some of the stuff that I was doing to try and put economic pressure on the military — to try and identify who the perpetrators were, and so on. She was always concerned about what the military were doing, as were many other people.

But of course, we couldn't really go public on that and that was actually used against us at the trial. One of the documents that was presented to me by the military was a document that set out some of the economic measures we were trying to undertake against them to stop some of the atrocities in Rakhine and other places. So, hopefully history will judge some of these things, I think, quite differently than it has up until now.

VOA: You have had extensive experience working on Myanmar’s economic and political landscape for many decades. Can you help us understand the key differences you have observed between the current junta and previous military governments in Myanmar? In what ways has the current military leadership's approach and behavior differed from past administrations, and how has this impacted the country?

Turnell: For all its faults — and, of course, there were many — under Thein Sein I think you had a regime that that had a direction, in terms of the economy. There was at least a vision that Myanmar needed to turn around and become a better society, for its people, a better economy, and there were lots of economic policies put in place to try and deliver that. You needed much more foundational things to make that work, and you needed democracy and democratic norms and liberal institutions — and that's what Daw Suu's government tried to bring it.

What's so different about this current regime is that they don't seem to care about that at all. They really seem to be concerned with nothing but the regime's survival. For this current government, the economy is nothing but an arena to grab resources for the military. I don't think there seems to be any consideration beyond that. It seems to me that there's no talk of becoming an “Asian Tiger” economy, there's no talk of becoming a prosperous nation, improving health and education. It seems to me that the current regime is not even pretending to be concerned with anything else but its own survival.

VOA: You have been calling on the Australian government to impose tougher sanctions on Myanmar's state-owned banks. However, the situation in Myanmar is not only an economic crisis, but also a humanitarian one. How can the international community better address both aspects of this crisis?

Turnell: Well, the main thing that sanctions are for is to reduce regime capacity, its capabilities to wage war, and above all, its capabilities to access foreign reserves to buy military equipment, munitions, weapons, aircraft, fuel, all that sort of stuff. So, I think that's where we need to view sanctions. And that's why I think those sanctions that particularly target the banks that hold the foreign reserves, I think that's quite important because that should have minimal collateral damage, if you like, to humanitarian assistance. It really should target the regime's ability to wage war against their own people.