Sean Turnell, an Australian citizen who served as an economic advisor during the National League for Democracy-led government in Myanmar prior to last year’s military coup, was released from prison by the junta in a general amnesty on Nov. 17 after more than 650 days behind bars. Sentenced to a three-year jail term for violating the Myanmar Government Secrets Act despite being officially appointed by the NLD-led government, Turnell described his imprisonment and amnesty as “circus stuff” used by the junta in a bid to extract concessions from the international community and confer legitimacy on its rule.
In an interview with RFA Burmese, Turnell recounts the difficult conditions he endured during his incarceration and provides his views on the state of Myanmar’s political crisis since the military takeover.
RFA: How are you?
Turnell: Very good, since being released. Not so good while I was not. So I’m feeling good, you know, I’m very happy that I am released. But very, very mindful that a lot of people are not, including many, many of my Burmese friends who remain imprisoned. And of course the whole country remains imprisoned [under junta rule]. So I’m very concerned about that.
RFA: What do you think was the reason for your release from prison?
Turnell: Good question, and I think it’s not entirely clear. I think partly it’s all pressure on … the regime, from people around the world including, of course, the United States, Australia … As you and all of the people listening to this know, the situation in Myanmar is absolutely terrible. The economy has also been completely destroyed and so I would imagine the regime is feeling under pressure and this is part of a gesture to try and get some of the pressure lifted off of them. So I think this is all a part of a political guise. But, you know, the real change – the important change – still hasn’t happened. This is all just circus stuff.
RFA: Could you please share some of your experiences in prison?
Turnell: Yeah, well, it was pretty bad. And again, I’m sure many people who are listening to this have experienced and fully understand what Myanmar prisons are like. They’re pretty dreadful. At a personal level, I thought I might have been treated very gently. And I suppose to some extent … I was treated slightly better than the average Burmese person was in Myanmar prisons. But it was still pretty rough. The conditions are pretty terrible. The food was bad, and it was very easy to catch diseases, so I got COVID five times while I was there.
Having said that, though, I was with a lot of Myanmar political prisoners, of course. And they remained in very good spirits. Very much supporting each other. There was a broad feeling of solidarity and compassion and certainly … my Myanmar colleagues who were political prisoners were very good to me. They helped me survive. There was really just a good spirit in the air.
[Deposed and jailed] State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi … was in great spirits. Very, very strong, very serene … the person we’ve always known her to be. She remains that. She probably spent more of her time keeping the spirits of everyone up around her rather than worrying about herself. So, amongst political prisoners, a great feeling that ultimately, in the long run, the people of Burma would win and some sort of peace will return at some point. And real strength and passion amongst the people.
Subjected to ‘psychological torture’
RFA: Did you experience anything like torture?
Turnell: I was treated quite badly and also I witnessed and heard torture taking place all around me. But I wasn’t tortured myself, except psychologically. I was held in solitary confinement for months on end and not given anything to read, or things like that. I would call it psychological torture but my Myanmar friends who were caught were actually tortured, physically … They had electrodes attached to them and were electrocuted. People were beaten. There were bruises and scars that people had from beatings.
It’s not a good place and the regime doesn’t worry at all about any human rights … They don’t even care about their own laws. For instance, in the end, I was convicted under a law that legally doesn’t apply to me. But they didn’t really care … Sometimes they don’t even pretend to be doing things properly. The trial I was at where Daw Suu was accused and myself and so many other ministers, everyone knew it was a total sham. And [the regime] never really disguised that.
RFA: Did they take you to an interrogation room before prison?
Turnell: Yes. [For two months] I was just locked inside something that I call a box. It was almost like a small shipping container. It had no windows. It had nothing but a concrete floor and steel chair. It was bolted to the floor and there were chains and ankle cuffs … And I was held there for two months without any contact with the Australian Embassy … They used to just come inside the room at any time – middle of the day, middle of the night, no telling. They didn’t even identify themselves. So I was never quite sure, was I talking to a special branch, was it military intelligence? I think in the end, it was a mix of both.
That was the worst time. And as I mentioned before, completely outside of the law. At no time did they justify anything, at no time did they have warrants or anything or tell me in any way what I was being charged with or given any due process. Again, personally, not physical torture, but psychological torture, definitely. So I was told … that I would never see my wife and family again.
RFA: You got COVID in prison, right? Did you get proper medication?
Turnell: They were usually pretty good about that for me because I think they were only worried that if anything happened to me, the international community would really rise up. So they were willing to be careful about that. They didn’t care if I was comfortable or not. Or whether I got diseases … I think they were a bit worried I might die … So I usually got medical attention if it was serious.
RFA: How about the food they provided in prison?
Turnell: It was awful, it was terrible. It was just out of a bucket. Everyday you got something – bean soup, boiled rice. The rice was always horrible, with stones in it so you had to be careful not to break your teeth. Sometimes, I had this sort of meat thing … The best bits of it were sold off [by the authorities] on the black market and all that was left [for us] was bone and gristle and oily residue.
RFA: What do you think about the charges against you?
Turnell: Completely ridiculous. It was official secrets that they said that I breached, but all we were doing was economical work … And of course, all of this was done by a regime that itself is completely illegal and has no legitimacy. So the legal aspect was a complete sham, and the regime knows that. Sometimes they don’t even pretend that they’re acting in an illegal way.
‘We’re back to the Myanmar of 20 years ago’
RFA: How do you see the situation in Myanmar now?
Turnell: Terrible. The economy has been basically destroyed. The proportion of Myanmar’s population that dies of poverty has more than doubled. The exchange rate has collapsed … The foreign investment and all the nice [development] programs that get set up are all just ruined and all get pushed aside. We’re back to the Myanmar of 20 years ago. The country has made a great leap backwards. And while the people of Myanmar suffer, the military has made sure to look after themselves. It’s not too far to say they have destroyed the country.
RFA: Will you help Myanmar again if you have the chance?
Turnell: I sure will. One of the last things said to me as I was being deported a week ago was by a senior official who urged me to “please don’t hate Myanmar.” And I said, “I could never hate Myanmar. I love the people of Myanmar. I hate the regime … but I love the people. They were brave and strong and very good to me all throughout” … I have nothing but love and respect for the people of Myanmar. And I will continue to do all that I can to help.
RFA: What do you want to say about the junta to the international community?
Turnell: We need to do everything we can to get rid of them, frankly. Convince them to just get out of the way and to leave the people of Myanmar alone. There’s been such great progress over the years leading to this, they’ve knocked everything back. They’re a regime with no vision … But it’s a regime that is not very clever. They have no idea, no understanding, of economics at all.
RFA: What do you want to say to the people of Myanmar?
Turnell: Well, I love and respect you. I will always be here for you. So at a personal level, I would like to get that across. I don’t blame the people of Myanmar in any way. In fact, I see them as heroes, and people who were incredibly compassionate to me. Sometimes in the prison, the people who were the most vulnerable and had the least resources were the people who helped me the most.
Secondly, I suppose even though with Ukraine and all that, some of the attention has moved off Myanmar, we need to get some of the attention back. The international community will stand up for them. And hopefully, I guess the task is to keep that up and to reinvigorate that and make sure that Myanmar comes to the attention of everyone as well.