Covid fears for Australian academic detained in Myanmar

Economist’s ordeal highlights the risks of lone advisory roles in unstable countries

July 21, 2021
Sean Turnell Tim Harcourt
Detained academic Sean Turnell (left) with friend and fellow economist Tim Harcourt

Concerns are growing for detained Australian academic Sean Turnell, as Covid spreads through the Burmese prison where he is being held captive.

Dr Turnell, a Macquarie University economist who had taken leave to work as an adviser to Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi, was detained a few days after the February coup. His wife, Ha Vu, said that the Delta variant had now reached Insein Prison near former capital Yangon.

“My husband has experienced cold and flu symptoms for a few weeks,” she revealed on Facebook. “His health is at tremendous risk. He has done no harm to Myanmar and to the people of Myanmar at all. He should be treated with respect and dignity.”

Friend Tim Harcourt, an industry professor at the University of Technology Sydney, said he understood that Dr Turnell had not been diagnosed with Covid. But with coronavirus cases in Myanmar skyrocketing to about 5,000 reported infections a day, and Insein Prison infamous for leaving inmates untreated, colleagues are concerned.

“Sean’s a very good technical economist who wanted to give good advice,” Professor Harcourt said. “He wasn’t involved in any politics there. I hope they show some compassion, or decide for national reasons that it’s not a good idea to keep him.

“He’s made friends with all the guards. He’s got this fascination with Burmese history, so he’s made the most of it with his captors. But of course, it’s not them doing it – it’s the junta.”

Dr Turnell was due to appear in court on 23 June, but Professor Harcourt said that the result was unclear. He said that information about developments in the country was impossible to obtain from government sources, with most funnelled through foreign journalists or “activists who somehow get tipped off by diplomats”.

Canberra has repeatedly demanded Dr Turnell’s release. Australia’s deputy head of defence, Vice Admiral David Johnston, has twice broached the subject with his Burmese counterpart Soe Win – most recently in mid-June, according to Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT).

“Vice Admiral Johnston underlined the very high priority that Australia attaches to Professor Turnell’s release, and made a range of requests regarding his circumstances,” DFAT said in a statement.

It is understood that Dr Turnell, who has been accused of breaking Myanmar’s official secrets law, is being represented by Ms Suu Kyi’s lawyer, Khin Maung Zaw. The Guardian reported that court proceedings were expected to last about a year.

Professor Harcourt said his friend had been “crazy” to go to Myanmar, and had missed an opportunity to flee the country shortly after the coup because he wanted to do the “right thing”. “He probably didn’t think it was as bad as it was. Then when they did come for him, he thought he could cooperate and all’s fine. It was not to be.”

Professor Harcourt said academics who wanted to help troubled countries like Myanmar were safest doing so through bodies such as DFAT, embassies or the World Bank: “I’ve had a few friends in similar situations. You have to be very careful.”

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