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The Sentencing of Professor Sean Turnell: The Military Junta in Myanmar is Sending a Message to the World

15 Nov 2022
By Andrea Malji
Myanmar armed forces day, Naypyidaw, 2021. Source: /

The detainment of high-profile foreigners is a form of hostage diplomacy. The junta may feel the need to demonstrate that they do hold leverage, to prevent countries from implementing strong sanctions.

Over 15,000 people have been arrested in Myanmar since the military junta came to power through a February 2021 coup. Among those arrested is Sean Turnell, an Australian professor, economist, and advisor to Nobel Laureate and former State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi. Turnell and Suu Kyi were arrested shortly after the junta came to power.  Many of the arrests since the coup have targeted journalists, junta critics, and members of the former government. In September 2022 the military government sentenced Turnell and Suu Kyi to three years in prison for “security breaches.”  The sentencing of Turnell and Suu Kyi, alongside the arrests of other foreigners and activists, signals the hardline approach adopted by the new government.

Myanmar captured the world’s attention in 2010 with what seemed to be an abrupt change from its decades long repressive regime. Amid rising internal and global pressures, the  junta relinquished much of its power and held elections. Myanmar never fully democratized  as military officials still held considerable parliamentary power through the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). Nevertheless, the 2010 and 2015 elections brought a new openness to the country not seen since 1962.  Aung San Suu Kyi, a democracy activist and daughter of independence fighter Aung San, was released from house arrest in 2010. Along with others, she formed and led the National League for Democracy (NLD) party and was subsequently elected to the highest position within the country.

Turnell had become increasingly involved in Myanmar during its democratization period from the early 2000s onward. In 2001, he established the Burma Economic Watch, which monitored economic developments throughout the country and published findings in a journal by the same name, hosted at his home institution, Macquarie University. His research focused on the widespread economic inequality and underdevelopment throughout the country and identified opportunities for economic development. Turnell’s relationship with Suu Kyi and the NLD became closer as Myanmar democratized and global investors became increasingly interested in the country. More recently, Turnell worked as the director of research for  the economic think tank Myanmar Development Institute, which was established in 2017. Turnell frequently appeared alongside Suu Kyi and other party leaders and was perhaps one of the most visible Westerners operating within Myanmar. This proximity, alongside his previous criticisms of the USDP, the de-facto military party, would later make him a prime target.

Democracy proponents hoped that Myanmar would serve as an example of a new democratic wave for the 2010s. However, such liberalization never took place. Instead, the military maintained significant power behind the scenes and many troubling developments took place over the next decade.  By 2017, human rights activists were calling attention to widescale atrocities taking place against the Rohingya ethnic minority in the western state of Rakhine. A growing wave of nationalist militia groups, with support from the military, carried out what many scholars called the ethnic cleansing, or genocide, of the Rohingya minority group. Subsequently, NLD critics argued that the response to the crisis was lacking and, in many cases, reinforced the actions of the military. The increase in human rights violations and violent conflict signaled the growing instability in Myanmar, which simultaneously created a divide between the former Nobel peace prize winner and the international human rights community, and provided the military an opportunity to intervene and promise stability.

When Myanmar held its election in November 2020, many observers worried that the already dysfunctional democratic  process would erode further . Shortly after the results were announced, the Tatmadaw challenged its legitimacy, claiming that there was widespread election fraud and voter irregularities. By February 2021,  the military had taken control and arrested many opposition leaders, including Suu Kyi and Turnell. In the following months, the military began a brutal crackdown against protestors, with thousands killed and many prominent democracy activists executed.  Turnell pleaded not guilty to the charges and faced up to 14 years in prison.  While Australian officials were banned from attending the closed trial, Minister for Foreign Affairs Penny Wong commented that  Turnell was “unjustly detained by the Myanmar military regime.”  Many expected Turnell to receive his sentence and then be deported,  as was the case with American journalist Danny Fenster in 2021. Instead, Turnell received a three-year sentence and returned to prison along with Suu Kyi. Following this, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese commented, saying “What we see is unjustified and we see in Myanmar a trashing of human rights and of proper legal processes.”

The junta’s harsh response toward protestors and the opposition signals its repressive intent to squash domestic dissent in order to maintain control. Additionally, the detainment of foreigners such as Turnell and, more recently Vicky Bowman, former British Ambassador to Myanmar, may indicate what some call “hostage diplomacy.” Detainment of high-profile foreigners could be an attempt to prevent countries like England, Japan, and Australia, all of which have citizens detained in Myanmar, from implementing strong sanctions. Following the execution of four democracy activists in July 2022, Foreign Minister Wong said that sanctions against Myanmar’s military leadership were under “active consideration.”  Harsh penalties for foreign nationals may also be a signal to their home countries to not support opposition groups, such as the National Unity government (NUD), a coalition of various anti-government groups ranging from former NLD members to longstanding ethnic insurgency groups. Moe Zaw Oo, Foreign Minister of the NUD, said hostage diplomacy is a tactic of authoritarian regimes and compared Turnell and Bowman’s detainment to that of US female basketball player Brittany Griner in Russia. Zaw Oo went as far as to say that the ransom in this hostage diplomacy case is for “some sort of political benefit.”

The international community has a right to be concerned about the safety of foreign nationals and the overall situation in Myanmar. The situation has continued to deteriorate since the February 2021 coup. The junta has demonstrated its willingness to pursue widespread human rights violations to maintain power. Protestors, opposition leaders, and ethnic minorities continue to face violence, detention, and torture.

The situation in Myanmar serves as a cautionary tale for foreign nationals operating in authoritarian countries, and to remain vigilant and aware of the risks they face, especially when interacting with government and opposition officials. Unfortunately, like many citizens of Myanmar, Turnell and other detained foreign nationals are victims of a brutal regime that denies basic dignity to its people.

Andrea Malji is an Associate Professor of International Studies at Hawaii Pacific University and a visiting Fulbright-Nehru Scholar at the University of Kerala.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and can be republished with attribution.