NEW YORK (NEWS10) — On February 1, 2021, the military in Myanmar staged a coup and overthrew the National League for Democracy government, arresting their leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and other democratically elected leaders. Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief of the military, and other generals known as the Junta seized power.
The military quickly arrested many pro-democratic activists, journalists, and expatriates who worked closely with the NLD, including Australian economist Sean Turnell. Turnell, a professor of economics at Macquarie University in Sydney, had been working as an adviser to Aung San Suu Kyi but was arrested five days after the coup when he was preparing to leave the country. He was tried in court on trumped-up charges and sentenced to three years in prison for violating the country’s secret laws and immigration laws.
Turnell was initially held in isolation in a small room with no windows and a concrete floor. He was later moved to Insein prison in Yangon and eventually transferred to the capital, Naypyidaw, where he was held near a hut where Suu Kyi was imprisoned. In prison, Turnell faced many challenges from solitary confinement to intense heat, rats, and even scorpions.
Turnell spent 650 days in prison before he and more than 6,000 others including former British Ambassador Vicky Bowman, were freed to mark Myanmar’s national day on November 17. Despite the amnesty, the Junta continues to rule brutally, committing many atrocities on a daily basis including the recent executions of imprisoned political activists.
On Tuesday, Turnell took the time to answer questions about what transpired after the military coup and shared his outlook on the future of the country.
Q: “In an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corp, you detailed your time in prison in Myanmar and how you were able to persevere during the hard times. Were they feeding you regularly?”
A: “Overall, they would keep it vague whether you would get anything or not. Sometimes I had things to eat but I lost 20 to 30 percent of my body weight. It was never enough.”
Q: “For events like major holidays in Myanmar, would they do anything special or perhaps give you special meals or treats?”
A: “Actually Mate, this is something surprising. Sometimes the superintendent of the prison would give things like food to the prisoners to celebrate a holiday.”
Q: “At one point in time you were in the same prison as Aung San Suu Kyi. When was the last time you saw her before you were released and what did that conversation look like?”
A: “The last time I saw her was when we were sentenced, about 8 weeks ago. We had a farewell conversation of sorts. She shared messages to pass on to friends and family. I remember her asking me ‘Please tell everyone the truth about Myanmar. We’ve been silenced but you can talk’. She also expressed how proud she was, especially of the young Burmese people. She was really proud of how the people were prepared to defend and fight for democracy, even though their exposure to democracy was very brief.”
Q: “To your knowledge, how many other friends or colleagues of yours were also arrested and imprisoned?”
A: “Most of my Myanmar colleagues are still in prison so it is our job to educate the people on their behalf and work to get them out. It is so unjust Mate. For example, there is Bo Bo Nge, who served as the deputy governor of the Central Bank. He is a great guy who was fighting against corruption and pushing for reform. Before he got there, Myanmar’s largest private bank KBZ, was the only bank they had operating internationally in Singapore. Bo Bo Nge and the Central Bank opened more accounts in other countries and yet the regime charged him with corruption. All the key reformers who were fighting the good fight peacefully are the ones in prison and the corrupt bankers are all still out there laundering money, the injustice is so extreme.”
Q: “What will it take for Senior General Min Aung Hlaing to relinquish power?”
A: “Honestly Mate, I don’t think anything. According to the constitution, he was no longer allowed to stay in his position as the commander-in-chief and his term had already been extended longer than normal. There had already been a number of concessions that had been made on his behalf.
“I think he didn’t want to give up power. He has seen what has happened and fears democracy and that people would come after his family for things like theft and corruption as they are deeply involved in businesses. He wanted to maintain control of the military and protect his wealth. He fears the international criminal court and the democratic government. He fears that they would cooperate about the atrocities that he and the military have committed toward the Rohingya and Burmese people. He would have been tried on many charges.”
Q: “With civilians fighting back against the military daily, what do you think are the chances the opposition will prevail, say within the next few years? Or do you think there could be a compromise considering how much damage has been done to the country already?”
A: “I could see both of those scenarios playing out. The regime is extremely brutal and won’t give up power easily but the number of people on top is very small. My observation is police and many others connected to the military are frightened by them but it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see another coup, especially with the economic damages.
“Most of the cronies have suffered terrible damage and the damage that has been done to the country’s economy is so extreme. It seems to me that it would be in their best interest for someone else to take over, but it would be an internal coup. I would not be surprised to wake up and hear for example, that the second in command has taken over and is looking for a compromise.”
Q: “To elaborate further on the economic damages sustained, what would the economic recovery look like once everything is said and done?”
A: “The damage has already been so severe that I feel a little pessimistic. Recovery is going to take a very long time, and it will take a lot of time and effort to get foreign investors to come back in. I think everyone will have doubts unless they were absolutely convinced that there would be no military comeback.
“I think it would require a government to come in and act really quickly while political capital is there. There would need to be a really radical reform to upset the whole political economy to get resources away from the military and whoever comes in would have to be really aggressive on the part of the constitution regarding the military chief.”
Q: “What are some thoughts you have about the future of the country”
A: “I think there are a lot of good, young people out in the world. I have been deeply impressed with the Burmese people outside of the country including the National Unity Government. The work that they have done, and now they even have their own currency. Irrespective of the particular merit, it’s very good.
“Looking at the spirit and the ability of the young Burmese people to understand everything, they are very clever. I only heard rumors about all of these people when I was in prison, but now that I am out, so many have reached out to me. I do see the people who were there before very much having a future role.”
Q: “Now that you have time, what is next for you?”
A: “Above all Mate, I want to write a book. We have already started. I feel like I have an unfinished agenda, as there has been so much misunderstanding. Before the coup, we were looking at all sorts of ways to use economics to turn the country around and I want to get across the story of what they were trying to do as a lot of that went underreported. The government was never that good about communicating.
“I also want to write about the arrest and to tell the story of how my wife Ha Vu was doing incredible international coordination. There was cooperation with the U.S. and Australian governments and even smaller governments like Cambodia played a role in my release.
“I want to write the book, write my personal story, correct the record a little bit about what the government was trying to do, and use the book as a sort of cathartic thing. But, I don’t want to get too overbusy. More than any other time, this is the time for the young Burmese people to shine, and I want to stay well in the background.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.