Sean Turnell: Jailed Australian professor tells of horrific prison conditions in Myanmar

An Australian professor has spoken out about the horrors of living in horrific conditions for 650 days in a prison in Asia. He was fighting rats, scorpions, and numerous bouts of Covid-19.

Economics professor Sean Turnell was in Myanmar at the invite of democratically elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi to advise on economic reforms in the country when she was overthrown by a military coup in February, 2021.

Prof Turnell, who had been warned of his danger, was trying to flee from the country when he got arrested while he was paying for a hotel room. 

Australian Professor Sean Turnell spent 650 days of captivity in appalling conditions in Myanmar

Prof Turnell stated that she could feel the policeman coming in behind her from the corner my eyes. “I could just, yeah. There was about 20 to 30 of them beginning in on me,” Prof Turnell explained. ABC’s 7.30 Monday 

“And yes, it was over by that time.”

Prof Turnell was charged with a breach of the Official Secrets Act, which meant he was being accused of being ‘a spy’.

“In the early interview, they… informed me very directly that you work for MI6,” he stated. 

Prof Turnell spent the first two months in captivity alone, being held in a concrete cell that he called a “shipping container”. 

The 58-year old believed that he was being held outside Insein prison, near Yangon, Myanmar’s former capital. 

‘I was in this terrible place that I called ‘the box’, which was just this windowless room where I was just held for the first two months,’ he said. 

“No windows. Concrete floor. Metal chair. Bolted to the floor in middle of room. Ankle chains and wrist chain which were placed on me at different points. But yeah, I’m devoid of any reading material.

A View Inside The Crumbling Insein Jail, Where Prof Turnell Was Held And Exposed To The Elements As Well As Rats And 'Giant Scorpions'

View of the Insein prison, where Professor Turnell was held.

Prof Turnell Was Held In The Notorious Insein Prison, Which Is Near Myanmar'S Former Capital Of Yangon

Prof. Turnell was kept in Insein Prison, near Yangon’s former capital.

Prof Turnell kept himself active by pacing like a zoo animal and challenging himself to mental tasks such naming all American presidents or Australian prime ministers. 

Prof Turnell acknowledged that times can be difficult despite these efforts. 

“I was wondering how a mild-mannered little professor from Australia could end up here. He said.

“This was one the most notorious prisons in south-east Asia… There were many dark times, but I would try to pull myself together.

‘I knew the support coming from outside, so I thought, okay you just have to get over this. It’ll all be fine.

Prof Turnell claimed that the interrogators, who came in at odd hours such as the middle or late of the night, were the only human contact he made during this period.

He He claimed that the sessions began with stupid questions, for which there weren’t answers, and that he believed they were intended to intimidate him. 

He I was also told that you will never see your spouse and child again.

Prof Turnell explained that they began to “hone in” a little more to try and trap him into saying something about Aung San Suu Kyi.

‘They would place one of the interrogators in front, and the other would follow me. 

“And again, because I was kind of tied to this chair, I couldn’t see them. However, I felt that I might have been struck or something like that. 

Prof Turnell Has Been Reunited With His Wife Vu Ha Who Fought Tirelessly For His Release And Baked Him Treats That Kept His Spirits Up

Professor Turnell was reunited with Vu Ha, his wife who worked tirelessly to get his release and baked treats for him that kept his spirits high.

Professor Turnell stated that despite these difficult conditions, the worst experience was driving in a van to court. 

He stated, “And this van, meant for around 20 people. There were 50 of them.”

“We were all chained together and pushed into the back seat of the van. 

“The heat was intense, and sweat was falling, people were vomiting about me, and I fainted. But, we were all so tight that you couldn’t fall, which was a saving grace.

The Main Entrance To Myanmar'S Notorious Insein Prison, Where Prof Turnell Was Forced To Shovel Out Food From A Communal Bucket

Main entrance to Myanmar’s Insein prison. Prof Turnell was made to eat from a communal bucket.

After He was transferred to the main Insein prison after two months.

Prof Turnell said that “the physical environment was terrible.”

“It was a concrete cell with old, rusty iron bar bars, completely open for the elements… (which) signifies monsoon, which means it is incredibly hot. 

“It is insects, rats and big scorpions, which will be brought into the cell.

Professor Turnell stated that he was often ill.

He said that he had received Covid several times and would have stomach problems because the food was not good or kept in clean conditions.

A communal bucket was used for food, and prisoners were responsible for serving themselves with a spoon.  

Prof Turnell stated that it was a proper bucket in Insein prison.

Prof Turnell Is Shown Getting Vaccinated Against Covid In This Official Handout Shot From July

This official handout from July shows Prof Turnell getting vaccinated for Covid.

“In Naypyidaw Myanmar’s capital, where I was shifted up to the trial, it was not even that. 

They were old construction buckets, full of paint. Paint stains remained. A thin bean soup was made and then another bucket with rice would be added. 

“By the time the bucket is filled, there might be 50 people in the process. If someone has a disease, it will be in your food.” 

Sean Turnell Poses With Department Of Foreign Affairs And Trade Head Of Mission In Myanmar, Angela Corcoran, After Being Freed

Sean Turnell and Angela Corcoran from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade pose with each other after being released.

Prof Kelly Said Many People Have Told Him How Brave His Wife (Pictured Left) Was In Fighting For His Release

Prof Kelly stated that many people had told him how brave his wife was fighting for his release (pictured left).

It wasn’t until six weeks into his imprisonment that Prof Turnell was allowed to talk to his wife Ha Vu and their daughter, who live in Melbourne.

Professor Turnell was denied contact for several months. However the Australian embassy started supplying him necessities.

He eventually expanded his love for cooking to include his wife. 

Prof Turnell stated, “So my wife baked ANZAC cookies and raisin oatmeal cookies. Her wonderful fruitcake, which has always been a lot of alcohol in it to preserve its flavor,”

‘She They would cook them here, seal them in bags, and then send them to Canberra. There they would be placed in the diplomatic pouch.

“That smelled like home, that was why it was so wonderful,” she said. It reminded me of when I used the bag to smell the baking scent and it was so pleasant.

Prof Turnell Was Acting As An Economic Advisor To Democratically Elected Leader Aung San Suu Kyi Who Was Overthrown By A Military Coup In February, 2021

Prof Turnell was acting as an economic advisor to democratically elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi who was overthrown by a military coup in February, 2021

Prof Turnell, Here Seen At An Official Function In Myanmar, Described Himself A 'Mild-Mannered Professor'

Here, Prof Turnell is seen at an official function held in Myanmar. He described himself as a “mild-mannered Professor”.

Professor Turnell stated that his wife fought bravely to get him out. 

Prof Turnell stated that she meant, “She rose to the occasion. As it turned out, she was extraordinarily. And, you know what, the one constant comment on my return from all of these people, people around world, is just how extraordinarily tough she was.” 

Prof Turnell described the September trial as a “complete charade”.

He said, “I knew right from the beginning that there wasn’t a process.” 

“That was because the verdict was 100% certain as soon as the charges had been laid.”

After Professor Turnell was sentenced to three-years imprisonment. However, he received an amazing reprieve in November when he was freed by the military regime in an international gesture of goodwill.

“Sean, I have good news,” said one of the young guards. Professor Turnell replied, “You’re going home.”

Prof Kelly Said Being Reunited With His Wife Vu Ha At Melbourne Airport Was Like A Scene Out Of The Movies

Prof Kelly stated that being reunited at Melbourne airport with Vu Ha was like a scene from the movies.

“And I said to them: “Look, you’re really not kidding, aren’t you?”

“They claimed they were not, and I only had 10 minutes to pack everything and get out of my cell.” 

He 10 days after he was reunited to his wife at Melbourne Airport, he said goodbye. 

He said, “It was just an amazing moment…we just ran to one another and collided as if it were a scene from the movies.” 

Prof Turnell said that he was humbled at the efforts of his wife, as well as many others, like Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, Foreign Minister Penny Wong, to secure his freedom. 

‘The incredible work that so many people have done and like, I’m in awe of it, frankly,’ he said. 

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