INTERVIEW: ‘I could never hate Myanmar’

Australian economist Sean Turnell was an economic policy advisor to Myanmar’s State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi in 2021 when the country’s military ousted the democratically elected government in a coup and installed the State Administration Council or SAC, led by Sen. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing. 

Five days later he was arrested on charges of espionage and he spent the next 650 days – or about one year and nine months – in detention, mostly in horrible conditions in Yangon’s Insein Prison.

In his soon-to-be released book ‘An Unlikely Prisoner: How an eternal optimist found hope in Myanmar’s most notorious jail,’ Turnell tells the story of his time behind bars. 

He told RFA Burmese that although it is a story of great sadness, it is also one of courage for other prisoners jailed by the junta, especially Aung San Suu Kyi, who he calls ‘Daw Suu,’ a term of respect for women. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.  

RFA: What was your motivation for writing this book?

Turnell: Well, it was something that I always intended to do. In fact, I wrote most of the book in my head during the time I was in prison. 

On many days, of course, I didn’t really have much to do, so part of my pacing up and down the cells, I’d be trying to think of things to think about. And part of it was writing this book. 

So probably about one third of it was written inside my head before I even got out. As soon as I got back, it was a relatively easy process of then converting all the thoughts up here [in my head] onto paper. 

RFA: Can you discuss how much of the book deals with your time in prison, and before and after the coup?

Turnell: About two thirds of the book is all about the experience post-coup. So I detailed my experiences on the day of the coup itself and then my subsequent arrest five days later, and then the next 650 days in Yangon’s Insein Prison, and then up in Napyitaw and then back to Insein and the court and meeting Daw Suu in the court and all of that. 

So that’s the bulk of the book. But I have a section there on … background … Why was I there? And how was I involved at all in the NLD government? The basic background to the reforms, things like that, how those reforms increasingly ran up against the military and the difficulties, things like that. 

But most of it is a memoir about post-coup, but I’ve got a section there about Myanmar before the coup and some of the reforms that we were trying to do. 

RFA: Is there any subject that you avoid in the book? Was there at any time that you had to pledge to the junta not to write about as a condition of your release? Was there anything like that in your release agreement?

Turnell: Oh, no. I made no pledge at all. None at all. I wondered whether they would ask me to do something like that. But they never, ever did. I never signed anything. In fact, I was very, very careful about that. On the very last day, as I was being released, we were wondering about exactly that. So, yeah. So I made no pledges, no promises to them whatsoever and wouldn’t have done so. I hasten to add, I would not have signed anything if it was put in front of me. 

But since coming out, you know, I exercised my right as an Australian citizen, of course, back in Australia, which has complete freedom of speech. I was very vocal in talking about my situation and all that.

I don’t think – I mean, obviously I’m subjective in this issue – but I don’t think I’ve been at all unfair or unreasonable in my comments about the regime or the conditions under which they held me and the nature of the trial and all the rest of it. 

I think any sort of objective account on any of those things would be identical to mine, would be my view. But obviously Myanmar now under the SAC regime is not a place where freedom of speech is welcome. So I’m to some extent not surprised that they’ve had a negative reaction to it. But it certainly didn’t involve any pledge or anything like that. 

RFA: What are some of the most powerful memories from your time in prison that you talk about in this book?

Turnell: Many memorable times. I think some really bad stuff. I think, hearing about the death of my friend Khin Maung Shwe or Yacob, as he was always to me, a wonderful man who protected me, was just a dear friend. I met him in the first six months when I was in Insein Prison, where again, he sort of held me and looked after me. I then went up to Naypyitaw Prison for a whole year as the trial went on, and I never found out about him at all until I was sent back to Insein after the trial. And I heard that he’d been murdered in the prison and that that was a real low moment. But certainly, you know, as I say, it’s one that is very much in my head. 

Other than that, you know, I remember all the horrible stuff, the terrible cell, the terrible food, the awfulness of prison transfers. And I noticed reading some of the reporting on Myanmar, the internal media, that people like your organization have taken up the issue of transporting prisoners. And just to add my voice to that, it really is terrible. Some of the worst moments I experienced were being transported between the prison and the court and between different prisons, et. cetera. So I certainly remember all that. 

But I remember again, some of the good things, the incredible conversations that I had with some wonderful Burmese colleagues and so on. I remember the compassion that they showed me. I remember, you know, some funny issues. And yes, It’s a real mixed bag and a mixture of horror, but a mixture of really good things that not only gladdened my heart whenever I think about Myanmar and its people, but even about human nature. 

One of the things that struck me is that while some people behave badly under pressure, a great many more people and certainly many Myanmar people behave superbly under pressure. And I was the beneficiary of that.

RFA: Is there any person or individual that you would like to dedicate this book to? 

Turnell: I’m dedicating it to my wife, who just championed me from the get go. You know, she knew what was happening on the first day, she was there the last day. And she just ran a massive campaign from here in Sydney. And she reached out to everyone to not only all the political leadership here in Australia, but even to people like Hun Sen in Cambodia. She wrote letters to Min Aung Hlaing’s wife. She tried to rope in the U.S. president. She got the king of England, Charles III, involved. She got everyone involved. It was the most incredible thing. 

So it was a no-brainer as to who I dedicate it to. But beyond her were my father, Peter, my sister Lisa, my nephews, my daughter, all of them were just, you know, just superb and then, you know, to the Myanmar people as well as other development friends and people from Australian foreign affairs and so on. But my Myanmar friends were very much in my thoughts beyond my sort of immediate family. 

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Australian Sean Turnell, center, seated during a ceremony inside the Insein Prison in Yangon, Myanmar on Nov. 2022. Credit: MRTV via AP

In terms of the structure of the book, I begin with the sort of drama of the arrest, the early interrogation, a terrible two months I experienced in something that I just called “the box,” which was just a room that I was locked into for two months in complete isolation. And the worst treatment that I had was at that period. 

Then I have another chapter on being released into Insein Prison and spent a lot of time just talking about that, the conditions, describing it, because it’s a most extraordinary place, particularly, I think, for people outside Myanmar. It would be very hard, I think, to visualize just just what inside is like. And a lot there obviously, again, about some great Myanmar friends.

Then, a big section once we go up to Naypyitaw, the awful conditions there in the Naypyitaw detention center was in many ways even worse than Insein. 

Then the trial, the absurdity of the trial and the absurdity of the charges against me and against my friends. 

Notes about Daw Suu, of course, who it was a great honor to work alongside before the coup. It was a great honor just to see how fantastic she was in the court in the prison. She remains as far as I know, but certainly to my experience, which was only a year ago, undaunted, full of courage, compassion, again, just raw intelligence, the way that it just shows out, the very courteous way that she treated the people who were persecuting her. She was just an inspiration. And so I spend a lot of time talking about that, just how she kept the spirits of myself up, and everyone else up. I never saw her waver or weaken anyway. So, you know, I certainly deal with that. 

And then, the absurdity of the trial, the darkest moments immediately after that, transporting back to Insein is then the final thing where I was put amongst the death row prisoners, which was terribly depressing and inspiring as well, because again, even those people in a desperate, desperate situation, they were also incredibly generous and great friends to me. So that’s sort of the second last section. And then I have finally the day in which I was told I was going home and the drama of going home and the incredible feeling and lift of going home. 

And then finally, just some of the events that I detail a little bit, how the regime became upset when I had the temerity just to say that I wasn’t treated that well by them and a little bit on that as well. But overall, it’s an uplifting story in many ways, even though along the way, unfortunately, I have to tell the terribly sad story for so many people in Myanmar. 

RFA: What kind of impact do you expect to make with this book?

Turnell: Above all, I would like the world to pay attention to what’s going on in Myanmar. As we who are interested in Myanmar know, the situation is desperate, and it doesn’t give it enough attention. The world’s eyes, very rightly, are on Ukraine, but Myanmar deserves attention as well. It’s a terrible situation. The people need help. They deserve help. And so if the book can do anything at all, it would be to help draw attention to that. 

RFA: Do you have any messages for Aung San Suu Kyi and your other friends in Myanmar?

Turnell: My message to both Daw Suu and my specific friends in Myanmar, but also people just generally is a big thank you. I love the place and still do. 

I was asked and I spoke to the media about this when I got released. A leading immigration official told me just as I was getting on the plane, he said, “Sean, please don’t hate Myanmar.” 

And it was an odd moment because he just spent minutes beforehand giving me a lecture about how I would never be allowed back, et cetera. But then he sort of changed his whole demeanor and again just said, “Please don’t hate Myanmar.” 

And I said back to him, “I could never hate Myanmar.” 

And again, for all the reasons that I’ve described here about just the love and compassion, the courage … that I witnessed all around me. So, yes, I have a very soft spot for Myanmar. I desperately hope to get back there one day, but that’s not going to happen until we get dramatic political change. 

That, of course, is a very minor thing compared to the overall story of what the people in Myanmar are going through. Just to get that message and a big thank you across to them and to say to them that even though Myanmar is not getting the attention it deserves, and that’s part of the book, but nonetheless, there are millions of people around the world who do follow events in Myanmar and who do care about what’s happening.

RFA: What about the regime? Do you have anything to say to Min Aung Hlaing and other regime leaders?

Well, I would say to them to put their country first. To put the people of Myanmar first. Stop being so defensive, selfish. I mean, I could go on and I won’t bother doing that, but I mean that very clearly. These are people who don’t have the country’s interests at heart. 

Perhaps some of them might have second thoughts. I like to think that probably not at the very top, but that there must be people, smart people, and for whatever reason, might be caught up in that regime who might just think, “This is terrible, we’ve got to stop this. This is enough.” 

I’m hopeful that that’s the case. It’s obviously very hard to know, but you just can’t help but feel there must be people who look at the economy, look at the dreadful state of the country and just think, “We can’t do this. We’ve got to stop.” 

And so to those people, I would encourage them to do so.

Edited by Eugene Whong.