Myanmar sentences Australian academic on ‘trumped up’ charges

Hopes that formalisation of economist’s imprisonment could trigger his early release

September 30, 2022
Sean Purnell
Source: Twitter

Advocates for detained Australian academic Sean Turnell say the three-year sentence he received in a closed Myanmar court could be a blessing in disguise, but the economic adviser to jailed former leader Aung San Suu Kyi could also remain behind bars until at least 2024.

Friend and colleague Tim Harcourt said there was a chance that having been formally sentenced, Professor Turnell could now find himself released and deported like “other foreign political prisoners”.

Last November, the American journalist Danny Fenster was released from a Myanmar jail just days after being sentenced to 11 years’ imprisonment, following the intervention of former US governor, diplomat and energy secretary Bill Richardson. Professor Harcourt said Australia should consider whether its own special envoy could achieve a similar result. “Perhaps former prime minister Kevin Rudd, given his good relationships in Asia?

“I have known Sean Turnell for 40 years. His main cause in life is to reduce poverty around the world, and he’d developed particular expertise in Myanmar – but alas he was detained on trumped-up charges. Hopefully, common sense and justice can prevail, and Sean can return to his wife and family in Australia soon.”

Professor Turnell took leave from Sydney’s Macquarie University to work in Myanmar during the country’s brief return to democracy, and he was among thousands arrested following the February 2021 coup.

He has reportedly been sentenced on immigration-related charges and for having “confidential” government documents in his possession at the time of his arrest. He says the documents were not confidential and were necessary for his work as a technical economic adviser to the ousted government.

In a statement, Australian foreign affairs minister Penny Wong said her government rejected the court ruling and called for the professor’s immediate release. She said consular officials had “made every effort” to attend the hearing but had been denied access.

“The Australian government has consistently rejected the charges against Professor Turnell,” her statement says. “We will continue to take every opportunity to advocate strongly for Professor Turnell until he has returned to his family in Australia. We acknowledge the strong international support shown for him, including from our region.”

Professor Harcourt, a high-profile author and chief economist with the Institute for Public Policy and Governance at the University of Technology Sydney, said his friend was a “nice bloke and a great human being” who had gained “rock star status” in pre-coup Myanmar. A keynote address that Professor Turnell had delivered at a Yangon university had drawn an “audience that Mick Jagger would have been proud of”.

A further 16 months behind bars now appears the “worst case scenario”, given the almost 20 months of imprisonment he has already experienced since his arrest.

Professor Harcourt credited the Labor administration’s “vigorous” advocacy on his friend’s behalf, but said it may have to consider firmer measures. “The Australian government has rejected sanctions so far, for fear they may backfire.”

UNSW Sydney lawyer Melissa Crouch said Australia should also grant more humanitarian visas to people from Myanmar, deny the military regime legitimacy in “regional and international forums” and give active support to the country’s exiled National Unity Government.

“Just as Europe is rightly concerned about the war in Ukraine, Australia cannot afford to sit idly by as war rages in Myanmar,” she wrote in an article published by the ABC.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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