The freed Australian economic advisor talks to Frontier about the military regime that put him behind bars and the views of fellow prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi.
Australian economist Dr Sean Turnell was released on November 17 after almost two years in prison in Myanmar. He was arrested within a week of the military coup in February last year and was the junta’s most high-profile foreign captive. Since his release he has spoken to the media about the grim conditions he endured in prisons in Yangon and Nay Pyi Taw, where he was interrogated in leg irons and thrown in filthy cells, sometimes within earshot of other inmates being tortured.
However, Turnell is more than just a witness to the military’s repression. The professor of economics at Australia’s Macquarie University has been involved with Myanmar for three decades, and from 2016 was a special economic consultant to State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who was his co-defendant in an Official Secrets Act trial and remains in prison. To draw on this expertise, Frontier talked with him about the possible motives for the coup and his arrest, the regime’s mishandling of the economy, the efficacy of sanctions and Aung San Suu Kyi’s views on the resistance movement. The text of the interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Firstly, Sean, why do you think you were targeted for arrest soon after the coup?
I was used as yet another avenue to target Daw Suu [Aung San Suu Kyi] and some of the other ministers. By arresting me, I think they were trying to demonstrate that Daw Suu and the government were excessively influenced by foreigners. A secondary [reason] was that the reforms, particularly the work I was doing on the banking sector, was starting to get close to some military connected entities that were engaged in some illicit financial activities, so they wanted to push back. The other [reason] is that I was there for the taking. I’m sure there were other people they wanted to grab more, but I was there in the middle of Covid when there were no regular flights in and out of Yangon. If they wanted to send a message to foreigners, then I was available for that.
Do you think the military’s narrative about Aung San Suu Kyi comes from genuine paranoia about foreign influence in Myanmar, or is it just a convenient excuse to get rid of a political rival?
I think it was both. One thing that’s really striking about this State Administration Council [as the junta names itself] is their lack of understanding of how modern economies work. I think they genuinely think that isolating Burma is the way to go, although what’s very clear is that this is the quickest way to poverty. They have an idea of Myanmar exceptionalism, that what might have worked for the Asian tiger economies just doesn’t apply to Myanmar [and] things like economic development are just fripperies. Economic liberalisation, the broad avenue through which the Asian tigers developed, is something that interferes with their project, which is binding Myanmar ever more tightly together under their control. So, they see Myanmar as an exceptional country that needs to be walled off from foreigners. But there’s a degree of cynicism as well.
What did your interrogators want to know? Were they looking for anything substantial from you?
They were looking for evidence that somehow, a foreigner, in this case myself, was the man behind the curtains pulling all the strings. They wanted to suggest I was the puppet master, or the master spy, and that Daw Suu and her ministers were my puppets and agents … to back up their central narrative that Burma needed to be protected from perfidious foreigners. The questions came from people who didn’t understand anything. I remember one moment when I was accused of being in communication with the International Monetary Fund, which of course was true; we worked alongside the IMF. But they didn’t know what the IMF was, and when they asked me about the IMF, they said, that’s George Soros! And I said, well, no, it’s not actually, and I went into an explanation of it. But I quickly saw I was making them all the more suspicious, because the explanation I was giving about complicated international finance was proof to them of too-clever-by-half foreigners being involved in Myanmar.
Were they satisfied with what you gave them? Or did they maybe not care that much because the judicial process was a sham?
Very much the latter, mate. It was all performance. When they couldn’t find what they were looking for, they made it up. The law that they charged me under, the Official Secrets Act, didn’t even apply to me. I was a foreigner, I wasn’t a direct employee of the Myanmar government, so I wasn’t subject to the act, yet they went ahead and charged me under it. There were also all sorts of clauses in the act that the prosecution would have been required to prove in any legitimate court of law, but which were not satisfied. The prosecution was required to find for instance that I had transmitted information, and they actually admitted in the court that I hadn’t. The whole thing was a farce.
There was a theory going around that you may have been targeted because you knew too much about the military’s finances and so could help design more effective sanctions. Do you think there’s any truth to that?
I think there’s a bit. They regarded me as dangerous. But on the other hand, they released me in the end. They waited long enough though, so perhaps they thought that whatever information I had would no longer be useful. It’s definitely a factor but I wouldn’t exaggerate it.
Do you think economic concerns, including unhappiness at some of the National League for Democracy government’s reforms, factored into the coup?
I would put it down as a secondary motivation. I think the first was raw political power. I don’t think economic considerations matter that much to them. However, the reforms were starting to bite. [The NLD was] in the process of creating a genuinely open and competitive Myanmar and that’s the last thing that oligarchs, or various enterprises connected to the military and under the military, would want to see. The reform programme would have really accelerated if the NLD government had got a second term. If you’re a crony who’s cosy with the existing situation, enjoying market dominance, the idea that the industry you’re in might be opened up to competition, or that laws might have come in requiring greater compliance, could be challenging.
In the days before the coup, members of the NLD government were trying to downplay the threat of a military takeover. This was possibly to reassure people and avoid panic, but the aftermath of the coup suggested they didn’t have much of a contingency plan. Did the NLD just not see it coming?
I would put myself squarely in that category. I didn’t see it coming. Obviously, given my interactions with the government, if I picked up that they thought it was coming, I wouldn’t have been where I was [back in Myanmar after several months abroad due to the pandemic]. I wasn’t privy to any of the conversations between the government and military, but I was picking up nervousness and remember being worried about that. Some sort of trouble seemed to be brewing. But regarding the coup itself, I was taken by surprise and the people around me [in government] were taken by surprise, too.
How far do you think that economic mismanagement since the coup is due to the regime simply trying to maintain control in the face of overwhelming resistance? Could the regime have taken a different approach to the economy without making broader political concessions?
I’m inclined to the view that there’s a pathology at work. What I’ve been taken by is how this is just a return to the past, this great leap backwards in economic policymaking, into the old Soviet planning, dirigiste thinking. Capital controls, import controls, multiple exchange rates, floors and caps on prices, quantity controls on goods and services, rationing of access to the banks, closing the banks at various points, limiting the use of foreign currency. It would be so much better if they just did nothing, because their economic policy, if one can even glorify it with that label, is itself destructive. During the days after the coup when I was still free, I thought they’d get back to the [policies of the 2011-12] Thein Sein government, or that they would try to be Chile or Vietnam, where there’s control over the politics but economics can at least proceed on rational grounds. So, it’s been a shock how irrational and erratic the policymaking has been.
It seemed after the coup that the bottom was falling out of the economy, with the kyat in freefall and seemingly everyone trying to withdraw their money from the banks. But although millions are struggling to get by, the economy appears to have stabilised somewhat in recent months and the regime has been able to stay afloat. What’s your sense of where things are going?
Myanmar has a certain resilience at the bottom. The country now is in a situation where most people are at a basic level of subsistence, and that can continue for a long time. Myanmar’s soil is extremely fertile so it can keep people alive, but it can’t give them hope, it can’t lead to economic development. So, I think we’re back to just bumping along at the bottom, with all sorts of things hidden behind the surface. The balance sheets of all sorts of institutions, including the banks, are ripe for disasters ahead. The tight control, fear and brutality negates the volatility that you have seen in Sri Lanka, in terms of what’s on the surface, but below there’s incredible volatility.
What kind of international sanctions should be imposed on the regime, and how effective can we expect them to be?
I’ve tried not to talk too much about sanctions, because I wanted to see the situation first. I’ve advocated for sanctions in the past, most certainly, and I do think that targeted financial sanctions are entirely appropriate, if only for the reason that other countries should not have to give Myanmar banks access to their own financial systems. Other countries have every right to try and protect themselves from criminality emerging from Myanmar. The second issue to do with sanctions is whether they’re going to make a difference. I am struck that this is a regime that doesn’t care about economics. The regime has borne such costs to the economy in having a coup that I can’t imagine that anything is going to sway them along economic lines. I’m still feeling the way in terms of the precise mechanisms, but I’m mindful of the fact that half-done sanctions could become a problem, in the sense that it’s the really connected military entities, etc., that have the resources to evade sanctions, whereas others get caught up in them. My preliminary view would be that, if you’re going to sanction, you go all in. The full Russian variety. That’s the only thing that has a hope of working.
During your interactions with Aung San Suu Kyi as a co-defendant in the Official Secrets Act trial, did she express any views on the resistance movement, the adoption of armed struggle and the role of the National Unity Government?
A little bit mate but not on some of the specifics you mentioned. On the very first meeting, one of the first things she said to me was how proud she was of the Burmese people for standing up for democracy, and that even though they’d only been exposed to it for five years or so, their passion in defending their rights is something that really moved her. I know that a vigorous response in support of democracy is very much what she has in mind. I never asked her, for obvious [security] reasons, for any view on armed struggle or anything like that. So, I couldn’t say whether she had changed her mind [on non-violence as a political strategy]. Certainly, she was really proud of the way people were pushing back, but there wasn’t really an opportunity to explore the nature of that struggle. With respect to the NUG and all that, no specifics, but a broad feeling of thankfulness that people were organising and that there was a unity.
Do you think the junta wants to shut Aung San Suu Kyi away for as long as possible, or might they want to use her, for instance to divide the resistance?
Given the fact that engagement [between her and the military] is almost zero, I’d say they just want to wait it out. They just want her in prison for as long as possible and I didn’t see any indication of any flexibility on their part, or even capacity to engage in games with Suu Kyi in that way. It just seemed to be a case of locking everything down.
What do you intend to do next?
The first thing I’m going to do is write a book. In fact, I started it in jail. It was one of the ways I kept sane, walking up and down and writing it in my head. Probably about half the book is written in my head already … telling the story as I understand it, of the coup and the aftermath, as well as before then, and what the objectives of the NLD government were. But I also want to be engaged at a personal level and help as much as I can, with a particular focus on individuals I know who are extremely vulnerable. I’m still very much in love with Myanmar. It’s just so tragic that this lovely country and people are ruled over by probably the worst regime there is in the world, so I plan to stay involved and see where it goes from there.