In the early hours of the morning on February 6, 2021, Australian economics professor Sean Turnell received a chilling warning from a staff member at his hotel in Yangon, Myanmar.
“The security system, security cameras have been taken over by the military during the night,” he was told.
“The cameras were focused on my door.”
For three days since the Burmese military had arrested democratically elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi in a military coup, Mr Turnell had been trying to get a flight out of the country. Time was running out.
Standing at the reception of the Hotel Chatrium, paying for his stay, he saw armed police moving towards him.
“There was about 20 or 30 of them. By then, it was all over,” he said.
Speaking to ABC 7.30 in Sydney just eight days after the Australian government secured his release from the ruling Myanmar military, Mr Turnell said he was “grateful” to be free.
The 58-year-old was in Myanmar working as an economic adviser to now-deposed leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who remains in custody.
Mr Turnell was sentenced to three years in jail for violating the official state secrets act. “I was being accused of being a spy,” he said. “I knew I had done nothing wrong.”
After 650 days locked up in “horrible” Myanmar prisons, Sean Turnell – along with three other foreigners – was released on what the junta described as “humanitarian and compassionate grounds … to maintain friendly relations with other countries”.
Life inside ‘the box’
The first two months of his detention were spent in solitary confinement. There were no windows or bed, just a chair bolted to the ground in the middle of the room. Ankle and wrist chains were used for interrogations.
“The first thing you do is start pacing. So I did that and I would count my steps, which was oddly comforting, just counting and then thinking of all the strategies of like, trying to think of naming all the presidents … all the Australian prime ministers … anything just to keep active and to keep panic at bay,” he said.
He admits the panic did creep in at times.
“I was thinking, how on earth does a mild-mannered little professor from Australia end up here … one of South-East Asia’s most notorious prisons?” he told 7.30.
“But I would sort of pull myself together and again, I knew the support that was coming from outside. And so I thought … ‘You’ve just got to get through this. It’ll be OK.'”
He says he was “sort of too optimistic” that he would be released quickly.
“I still thought, as a fairly prominent foreigner that I would be housed in conditions that were OK. As it turns out it wasn’t really. I was pretty much given the same treatment as anyone else.
“The only human contact was the interrogators who would come into this room at all sorts of odd hours … I think they deliberately came in in the middle of the night, asking questions, and initially the questions were I think just designed to intimidate and demoralise. They were stupid questions that there were no answers to.
“After a while they started to hone in a little bit more to try and trick me to say something about Aung San Suu Kyi or someone else. But yeah, that was the only contact.”
‘Insects, rats, scorpions’ and books
Mr Turnell was later moved to Insein prison on the outskirts of Yangon.
“The physical environment was horrible,” he said.
“It was a concrete cell with old rusty iron bars, completely open to the elements. And it was open to the elements in Yangon, which means monsoon, means incredible heat. It means insects, rats, these horrible big scorpions that will come into the cell.
“But the upside, of course, was that I was with people and with other political prisoners, and I’ll never forget the moment that a very young political prisoner came up to me and said, ‘Sean, you’re safe now. You’re with us’.”
Most weeks, Mr Turnell would receive a package from his wife, Macquarie university academic, Ha Vu.
“My wife baked ANZAC cookies, raisin oatmeal cookies, her wonderful fruitcake … would cook them here in Sydney, seal them in airtight bags, send them to Canberra, where they would go in the diplomatic pouch from Canberra to Yangon and then be delivered to me. And not a single one went bad,” he recalled with a smile.
“I used to open the bags and just smell the aroma of baking and it was such a good moment.”
Just as valuable as the food were books contained in the parcels. “I really couldn’t survive without the books,” Mr Turnell said.
The first delivery he recalls was a biography of Alexander Hamilton, the first US treasury secretary. Within months he had begun writing a book of his own, partly in his head, partly scribbled in pencil in the margins of the books he kept in his cell.
‘This is not in the marriage vows’
The unwavering constant throughout Mr Turnell’s experience was the support of his wife, Ha Vu, who he says “rose to the occasion extraordinarily” in her efforts to secure his release.
“The one constant comment I’ve got since coming home from all sorts of people, people around the world, is just how extraordinarily strong she was, and how she made this coalition in Australia, America, Vietnam, Singapore – just all over the place,” he told 7.30.
“At one point, King Charles, the new King Charles was involved.
“And this all came from Ha, someone who hadn’t even come to Australia until she was 28 and she’s interacting with the highest levels of the Australian government. She was interacting with the US Senate.”
While applauding his wife’s strength, Mr Turnell says he feels “terribly guilty” for the anxiety she experienced while he was imprisoned.
“I was thinking, ‘Oh, this wasn’t part of the deal. This is not in the marriage vows.’
“The pain for everyone outside is much worse because in a sense, I’m suffering, but I know what’s happening to me,” he said.
“As soon as you say ‘Myanmar prison’, nobody thinks of anything good.”
Despite the distance and the extraordinary situation the couple found themselves in – and with limited chances to communicate – they still found a moment to connect, at precisely 5.30am Myanmar time each day, which is 10am Sydney time.
“In one of the early calls, we agreed a time where we’d be thinking of each other,” he said.
“Obviously, we couldn’t hear each other, but just the knowledge that she was thinking intensely about me and I was thinking intensely about her was good. It felt like we were in contact.
“I would even say, ‘Darling, are you there?’ I was quite convinced that she could hear me.
“I would even have that little line, ‘What would Ha do?’ Particularly in the situations about practical living, or how to react … What would Ha do?
“I used to think of her and have a conversation with her in those moments … and she has a very distinct way of expressing things, so it was literally her voice [that] would come to me.”
‘I could never hate Myanmar’
Despite efforts made for his release by the Morrison government, Mr Turnell says he became aware of an increase in tempo after the Albanese government took power.
“There was quite a distinct change … even just things like the demands for meetings, the demands for the phone calls,” he said.
By now Mr Turnell, whose health was worsening, had been transferred to a prison in Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw for the duration of his trial.
Aung San Suu Kyi was housed in a separate building in the same prison. The first time he spoke to her, the former leader apologised.
“She said, ‘Sean, I’m sorry to you, to Ha, your dad and your whole family for involving you in our problems.'”
In September he was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison. His final release seven weeks later came out of the blue.
At first, Mr Turnell thought the guards who delivered the news were joking. Instead, he was given minutes to pack. He agonised briefly over his precious books, deciding to leave most of them behind as a library for other prisoners. He was driven from the prison to the airport, where he was met by Australian officials and put on a plane back to Australia. His wife was waiting for him at Melbourne airport.
“It was just a magical moment … we just ran to each other and collided like a scene in the movies,” he said.
Despite everything that’s happened, Mr Turnell says he still loves Myanmar and its people.
As he was leaving Myanmar a senior immigration official spoke to him, saying, “‘Please don’t hate Myanmar’, and I said, ‘I could never hate Myanmar.’
“Ninety-nine per cent of the people in Myanmar are just wonderful – the most friendly, engaging, kind people it’s possible to imagine.”
“The Burmese people have nothing to apologise for.”
While Mr Turnell is coming to terms with his freedom, he is overwhelmed by gratitude for the efforts to secure his release.
“It’s so totally humbling. And feeling … utterly inadequate for the attention … Because, you know, I know my internal dynamics, I know the moments where I felt scared and cowardly and just wanted to go home. ‘I just want to come home.'”
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