Sean Turnell – An Unlikely Prisoner

For 650 days Sean Turnell was held in Myanmar’s terrifying Insein Prison on the trumped-up charge of being a spy.

In An Unlikely Prisoner he recounts how an impossibly cheerful professor of economics, whose idea of an uncomfortable confrontation was having to tell a student that their essay was ‘not really that good’, ended up in one of the most notorious prisons in South-East Asia. And how he not only survived his lengthy incarceration, but left with his sense of humour intact, his spirit unbroken and love in his heart.

Read on for an extract.



Friends, Saviours, and the Other Side of the Bars

It is painful to recall my feelings of mounting horror as I took in my new physical environment.

I tried to steel myself, to repress them, worried I was about to spiral into a psychological pit. I surely would have done, were it not for an intervention: suddenly and overwhelming, prisoners surged towards me in welcome. Ignoring my uniformed escorts – who thankfully stepped back, their work done now that they had got me to the door of my cell – they formed quite a crowd. From it emerged a friendly and – to me – absurdly young prisoner in a bright orange T-shirt with Daw Suu’s face blazoned upon it.

‘Sean, you are safe now. You are with us.’

These words were balm. Soon I would become acquainted with the person who spoke them: Paing Ye Thu, a remarkable young man in his early 20s. He was an emerging leader within the NLD and a confidant already of Daw Suu on youth affairs. A resident of Yangon, Paing Ye Thu was early to express his oppo­sition to the military coup and in organising peaceful protests

against it. For all of this he was also an early arrest, and was charged and convicted under the junta’s newly invented Section 505 of the Myanmar Penal Code, which outlawed free speech and more or less any peaceful action against the regime. As his greeting to me might suggest, he was a jovial character with an indomitable spirit and an infectious smile.

Paing Ye Thu having broken the ice, so to speak, the other young political prisoners came up to me, too. There was lots of ‘Mingalabar, Saya Sean’ (Hello, Professor Sean) as well as hand­shakes, fist bumps, and shy hugs. They all seemed pleased to see me, but assuredly no more than I was pleased to see them.

Of course, my new friends were full of questions as to what had happened to me in my two-month disappearance. They knew precisely who I was. What’s more, they told me they had been expecting me. They were curious as to whether I had news of The Lady, and were full of apologies for how I had been treated. On the latter, I reassured them that they had absolutely nothing to apologise for: ‘You’re all fighting the bastards, and that’s why you’re here!’ I told them.

I loved my new friends from the get-go. The redeemed what could have been the worst day of my entire life. Echoing what Paing Ye Thu said, they all vowed they would stand for no ill-treatment of me. And to be my ‘protector avengers’ – their label!

About 20 minutes went by, with me answering their ques­tions and they answering my anxious enquiries about what to expect in this awful place. What were the prison guards and other officials doing while all this was going on? The truth is I do not remember, and I don’t think I noticed on the day. Seemingly,

they melted away. Of course, the officials of the prison would run my life for much of the next 21 months, but for the present they withered from my thoughts – for the first time since my capture.

It was Number 14, and thus the fourteenth in the line of cells of Ward 4 that extended from near the base of the watchtower to the circular perimeter of the jail.Earlier that day, the cell’s most recent occupants – two prisoners – had been hastily moved out and taken off to another ward altogether.Soon my protector avengers went about more practical ways of expressing their friendship: by making habitable the cell that was apparently mine. Apart from cleaning the cell, my new friends constructed for me a wooden platform that would serve as a bed. They also scrounged up other things I would need: a cup, a plate, a bucket, a ‘shower’ scoop, a spoon – no knives or forks allowed, naturally though they could be made – and numerous other basic accoutrements of survival.

On the shorter side of average height, he was well-built and muscular in the way of someone primed and experienced in taking care of himself.Dressed like most of the others in a longyi (the sarong-style long skirt traditionally worn by Burmese men), what made him stand out from everyone around him was his beard.This fact explained the discrimination he had experienced all his life in Myanmar, and the extra suspicion and fear with which he was viewed by the prison guards.Lest it be thought otherwise, I must add that this prejudice was not shared by his fellow political prisoners, who always called him, as I did, too, by his preferred Islamic name of Jacoob.Standing a little back from the others at first, but soon to join the joyful melee, was the man who more than anyone was to keep me safe and sound in Insein. Khin Maung Shwe was about 40. Khin Maung Shwe was Muslim. Jacoob’s faith was central to his identity, the basis of his moral beliefs and actions, the core of his resilience.

Among those who cleaned out my cell, I noticed Jacoob took on all the worst stuff. Not least, he tackled cleaning the inde­scribably awful squat toilet, a task that did not appear to have been attended to since its installation – maybe a hundred years earlier.

‘No, no, no, mate,’ I told him. ‘I can do this. This is not for you to do. I am in this with you all, and I don’t want or expect special treatment. We are all together.’

But he was adamant. His extraordinary generosity to me – which he did not acknowledge – was simply a function of his deepest convictions, political as well as religious.

‘Helping you, Sean, helps The Lady, and my country,’ he said. ‘In this, I believe I am following God’s will.’ Not a forgettable sentiment, and one not easily dismissed.

No matter how many positive or meaningful interactions I had with fellow prisoners, nothing would change a basic legal fact: I should not have been there in the first place.I was not charged with anything, and at this point even the idea that I was on remand was still not settled.Although buoyed in my spirits by these unexpectedly wonderful encounters, as I tried to sleep on that first night in Insein – not easy as fluorescent lights were never switched off at night – a tide of cognitive dissonance and anger rose in my mind; its ebb and flow would be a permanent fixture. Imprisoned as I was in the regular jail of Insein was contrary to law and even the stated practice of Myanmar’s Prisons Department.

Of course, this was a minor matter when weighed against the wholesale collapse of anything passing for law and justice in Myanmar. Nonetheless, that such treatment of a high-profile foreigner took place was illustrative of a central fact, then and later: when it came to human rights of any form, for anyone, Myanmar’s military leaders simply did not care.

Back in Australia, Ha, Phuong, my dad and Lisa were cranking up their campaign to get me released, and to ensure I was not forgotten – not least by my own government in Australia. This effort would grow into a vast hydra over the weeks, months and year ahead.

From the outset, they grappled with the dilemma of how, when, and how much to engage the media. As newcomers to what is sometimes called ‘hostage diplomacy’, they had to weigh up the pros and cons of using the megaphone of publicity on the one hand and ‘quiet diplomacy’ on the other. As is her wont, Ha steered a path straight down the middle, using the media when she thought she needed to, remaining silent when the situation suggested discretion might be best.

An example of her use of the media was her publicising of my health history. She revealed that I had experienced a dehydration/ stress-induced seizure a few years earlier. When my dad was diag­nosed with prostate cancer early in my imprisonment, she also ensured that information made its way into news reports. Her thinking was that this might prompt the junta to take better care of me, while applying pressure on the Australian Government to go the extra distance, too.

This might sound surprising, but in situations such as mine, the media is often best employed as a vehicle for ‘encouraging’ a prisoner’s home country government rather than the imprisoning one. The latter are often regimes impervious to public pressure: Myanmar’s junta certainly belongs to this category. Democratic governments such as Australia’s, however, are usually much more responsive to stories of their citizens in distress overseas.

I was certainly one of these.



Dr Sean TurnellSean Turnell is Honorary Professor of Economics at Macquarie University. In 2009 he published an influential book on Myanmar’s financial system, Fiery Dragons, which made him an internationally recognised expert on the subject and one of Aung San Suu Kyi’s most trusted advisers. He was arrested in Myanmar in 2021 following a military coup and imprisoned for 650 days.

Sean lives in Sydney with his wife, Ha Vu, who campaigned tirelessly for his release.

Find out more about Sean Turnell

Author: Sean Turnell


Book Format: Paperback / softback

Publisher: Viking

ISBN: 9781761342929

RRP: $35.00

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