Fictitious sentence for Suu Kyi’s Australian economic adviser


Australian Sean Turnell, economic adviser to Myanmar’s democratically elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi, has been in prison since the February 2021 military coup, awaiting trial for the alleged crime of stealing state secrets.

This week, a mock court sentenced him to three years in prison, alongside Suu Kyi, who has previously been sentenced to more than 20 years in other sham court cases.

Both have pleaded not guilty to the charge of possessing secret and confidential government documents. Turnell said he only had the necessary economic papers for his job as a technical economic adviser to the Myanmar government.

The trial took place behind closed doors. Australian consular officials attempted to attend but were denied access. Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong issued a statement rejecting the legitimacy of the trial and calling for Turnell’s release.

Myanmar’s regime has agreed to take into account the 20 months Turnell has already spent in prison. It should therefore be released in January 2024.

However, it is possible that he will be released and deported earlier. There is a precedent for this.

In November 2011, American journalist Danny Fenster was sentenced to 11 years of hard labor but released just a day later. Bill Richardson, former governor of New Mexico and US ambassador to the UN, was appointed special envoy and negotiated his release.

How Turnell ended up in Myanmar

I have known Turnell as a family friend and colleague for many years.

A working-class child from Macquarie Fields in south-west Sydney, he attended Macquarie University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in economics, then a doctorate and eventually became an associate professor.

Turnell then became an expert on the links between banking systems and economic performance in developing countries, particularly in Southeast Asia.

He has written important academic articles on Myanmar explaining how, after decades of isolation under military rule, economic reforms could rebuild the country’s agricultural and tourism sector.

Aung San Suu Kyi (center) and Sean Turnell (right) in a photo taken before the coup. Picture: Facebook

Her work caught the attention of Aung San Suu Kyi. They first met in the early 1990s, before Suu Kyi was sentenced to house arrest. After his release in 2010, the junta (temporarily) authorized democratic reforms and invited him to become its economic adviser.

Turnell’s economic skill was widely admired. He became a sort of John Maynard Keynes of Myanmar. I witnessed this in 2017 when he delivered the keynote address at an Australian Myanmar Institute conference in Yangon. It was a full house with an enthusiastic audience.

On February 1, 2021, the army staged its coup. Turnell was arrested, along with other prominent Suu Kyi advisers, a few days later.

Has the time for sanctions come?

It has been suggested that Australia should appoint a special envoy to help secure Turnell’s release, just as the United States did for Danny Fenster. Former prime minister Kevin Rudd could be a good fit given his good connections in Asia.

In the meantime, it’s nice to see that Foreign Minister Wong has been more vigorous than her predecessor Marise Payne in defending Turnell and Myanmar in general.

Last month, Wong raised the issue of Myanmar at a meeting of ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Myanmar is one of ten ASEAN members, and its neighbors are divided over the forum’s longstanding policy of “constructive engagement” versus a harder line.

But will the Australian government back up its rhetorical support for Myanmar’s democracy movement with the kind of sanctions the movement expects from the international community?

Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong has a decision to make on Myanmar policy. Image: Screenshot/ABC

Observers have suggested that Turnell’s fate may have influenced the former government’s lack of enthusiasm for sanctions.

That still appears to be the case, with Wong taking a similar position to Payne’s saying only that sanctions against members of Myanmar’s military regime “are being actively considered.”

But there is a paradox at play here. If Turnell’s predicament is really the reason for the government’s reluctance to impose sanctions, it prompts the Burmese junta to keep Turnell locked up.

Tim Harcourt is Professor of Industry and Chief Economist, University of Technology Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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