Sean Turnell holds up a small elephant made from used prison coffee sachets and proudly describes it as his “most prized possession”.
“It sits right on the mantle with our wedding photo, my other prized possession,” he said.
The beautifully intricate, hand-woven elephant was the only thing the Sydney economist grasped upon his dramatic release from a Myanmar prison a year ago after 650 days of arbitrary detention.
“I choked up when I was given (the elephant) which was made by another political prisoner and it was the only thing I was trying to keep safe and in good condition.
“I protected him when I was moving from prison to prison, so I brought him home.”
It’s something of a memento of an experience that Professor Turnell, 59, will never forget.
“I constantly dream that I am still in prison.
“(In the dream) I was given a document that allows my release, and I go to the prison guards and I present this document and they say: ‘no, no, no, wrong date, wrong stamp, false. ‘ signature’, and I am taken back to the cells.
“And I sometimes have flashbacks, you know, some little event will happen to me, or I’ll just be walking around and I’ll instantly be back in prison.”
He was working as an economic adviser to the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi when the military seized power in a coup in February 2021, arresting Ms Suu Kyi, several ministers and Professor Turnell.
At first he thought it was a terrible mistake, but things became very real when he was thrown in prison and then charged with violating Myanmar’s colonial-era Official State Secrets Act .
He was convicted by a junta-run court after a trial widely seen as a sham and sentenced to three years in prison, including hard labor.
Cells like “animal cages”
For an academic who had never received a traffic fine, each development upset him.
“I thought I would get kid-glove treatment and it would be some sort of house arrest or something, but I was in the general prison population and the prisons in Myanmar are horrible, indescribably horrible” , he said.
He says he was forced to eat from a bucket that all the prisoners ate from, was hit and kicked, caught COVID-19 five times, and was was forced to wear leg irons and handcuffs in court.
Some of his prison cells were like “animal cages” open to Myanmar’s unforgiving elements: oppressive heat, incessant monsoon rain and mosquitoes.
Professor Turnell says although there were many dark days when he shouted abuse he didn’t think he would be able to say, he managed to carry on with the help of his fellow political inmates and family , his friends and his defenders outside.
“My fellow inmates were incredible,” he recalls.
“Even though they were all in a much worse situation than me – they were actively tortured with electrodes attached, they were beaten, (denied) access to food – they did everything they could to help me and really saved my life.”
“Live to get by for them”
Outside, Professor Turnell’s wife, Ha Vu, sent care packages including vacuum-packed fruitcakes and books via the Australian embassy in Myanmar, while lobbying fiercely for politicians for the release of her husband.
Books in particular, he says, “saved my life.”
“My wife and daughter were doing amazing things in the background – my family, my friends, the Australian government, the US government, the UK government, the Vietnamese government – everyone was doing all these things,” he said. he declares.
“I was aware of it and it gave me an incredible impetus to continue and live to get through it, for them and for myself.”
During much of Professor Turnell’s incarceration, human rights groups criticized the then-Morrison government and its foreign minister, Marise Payne, for not pushing the junta hard enough to obtain the release of the economist.
Ms Payne said they were using every available opportunity to advocate for her.
“I think initially there were a few missteps along the way,” Professor Turnell explains today.
“But it’s one of those things where the regime in Myanmar is so bad and so indifferent to international opinion that I’m not sure it would have made much difference.”
Federal elections bring change
He said he noticed that things “intensified” after May 2022, when the Albanian government was elected and Penny Wong became foreign minister.
Ms Wong had called on the government to sanction Myanmar’s military leaders while they were in opposition, but only followed through after Professor Turnell’s release.
“It always worried me the whole time I was in prison, I thought ‘I hope the lack of stronger action isn’t because of me,'” he said.
“But having said that, you cannot, as the person concerned, have mixed feelings about it, because at the same time you don’t want the punishment to come to you because of your government.
“Overall, I would support a stronger Australian position, but there were certainly moral dilemmas throughout.”
He believes it was right for Australia to impose the economic sanctions it ultimately did, but he would like to see our government and others “tighten the Myanmar military a little tighter” by restricting its access to foreign exchange and jet fuel.
He also wants the dire situation in the Southeast Asian country to receive as much attention as the war in Ukraine.
“One of the tragedies of Myanmar is that concern for the country has increasingly moved to the back of the agenda.
“It’s in the Australian zone, our sphere of influence, and the suffering there is great.”
“Brad Pitt to play me”
A year ago, Myanmar’s military leaders surprised everyone by announcing that Professor Turnell would be released early and deported as part of an amnesty granted to nearly 6,000 prisoners to mark the country’s National Day. Myanmar.
Ms Suu Kyi herself told him to tell her story and that of Myanmar “warts and all”. His book will be released this week.
“About a third of the book was in my head, memorized, the product of all that going back and forth in the cell, so my feeling when I got home was just to put it down quickly on paper and it was a feeling of relief to do it,” he said.
He also wants this story to one day become a movie – an idea that started in prison when he asked his fellow inmates which movie stars they would like to star with.
“I said I wanted Brad Pitt to play me, but I have this terrible feeling so far that they’re going to ask Danny DeVito,” he says with a laugh.