‘Nicest human you will meet’: Hundreds of academics rally around detained Australian economist Sean Turnell

More than 300 academics have signed a petition calling for the release of Australian economist Sean Turnell, the only foreign national to so far be detained as part of the Myanmar military coup.

Sean Turnell was an economic advisor to Myanmar's democratically elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Sean Turnell was an economic advisor to Myanmar's democratically elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Source: Supplied

Hundreds of academics have rallied around detained Australian economist Sean Turnell, describing the well-known academic as the “nicest human you will ever meet” and calling for his immediate release from “unjustified” detention in Myanmar.

Some 360 academics from universities across Australia have signed the petition, which described Dr Turnell as an academic with a “strong and genuine” commitment to Myanmar and exemplary ethics.

The petition was delivered to the Myanmar Embassy in Canberra on Wednesday.

A senior advisor to Myanmar’s democratically-elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi, Dr Turnell was taken into custody in the country’s capital Naypyidaw on 6 February, five days after the military took control of the government and issued a state of emergency citing widespread electoral fraud.

Protesters call for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, outside the Embassy of the United States of America.
Source: AAP

It is the first known arrest of a foreign national as part of the coup, which has rocked the small southeast Asian nation and led to widespread protests.

Dr Turnell has been held in an unknown location for almost two weeks, with internet outages across the country preventing himself and other detainees from communicating details of their situation.

Susan Harris Rimmer, a friend of Dr Turnell and signatory to the petition, told SBS News he is the “nicest human you will ever meet”.

“It’s really getting very scary,” she said. “Despite the best efforts of our embassy staff and the Foreign Minister, nothing seems to be shifting.”

The majority of signatories to the petition were Myanmar researchers, a subject area which Professor Rimmer described as a “tight community”.

Within the community, Dr Turnell was one of the longest-serving and most well-known Myanmar researchers.

He is known for his technical expertise and “complete commitment” to the country, Professor Rimmer said.

“He’s just a lovely man, there is no possible reason why he should be detained. He would never do anything wrong in any circumstance,” she added.

“That’s why we are all so shocked, for the only foreign national to be detained [in the coup], it’s terrible.”

Tim Harcourt, a fellow Australian economist, also praised his friend Dr Turnell, who he described as the the John Maynard Keynes” of Myanmar, explaining how the distressing situation prompted him to sign a petition for the first time in two decades.

“He’s been a technical advisor to the government of Myanmar, trying to improve the economy … so he’s doing a public service for everyone and there’s no way he should be detained,” he said.

“Sean is not a gun for hire, he’s not a political apparatchik, he’s a genuinely talented technical economist, who has a commitment to the people of Myanmar.”

Foreign Minister Marise Payne has previously called for the immediate release of Dr Turnell, an issue she had raised with Myanmar’s ambassador to Australia, describing him as a “highly regarded member of the academic community in Australia”.

Last week she announced Australia’s ambassador in Myanmar, Andrea Faulkner, had spoken with Dr Turnell about the “conditions in which he is being detained”.

Meanwhile, his wife, Ha Vu, described Dr Turnell as a dedicated family man who was warm, kind-hearted and generous.

"[He] always thinks about others before himself," she said in a Facebook post last week.

"Even now, wherever he is confined, we know that his thoughts and concerns are with those worrying about him."

Dr Turnell had lived in Naypyidaw since 2017 and is the director of the Myanmar Development Institute.

Prior to his arrest, which took place mid-way through an interview with the BBC, Dr Turnell tweeted that he was safe but "heartbroken" over what the coup meant for the people of Myanmar.

"The bravest, kindest people I know. They deserve so much better," he wrote.

Published 17 February 2021 at 3:54pm
By Maani Truu