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Academics speak up to free one of their own

Sean Turnell head and shoulders image
15 February 2022

Academics from The Australian National University (ANU) and around the country are calling on the government to do more to free their colleague Sean Turnell, who has been held in jail in Myanmar since the coup more than a year ago.

Associate Professor Nick Cheesman has submitted a petition to the Australian Parliament, urging the appointment of a special envoy to secure Turnell’s release. It is open for signature by any Australian resident or citizen.

The petition is backed by many friends and colleagues of Associate Professor Sean Turnell, who is an economist at Macquarie University. Turnell was detained at his hotel in Myanmar five days after a military coup on 1 February 2021.

Turnell went to Myanmar to advise the re-elected National League for Democracy. He has been charged with illegally possessing official secrets.

Other initiatives, including a website (https://freeseanturnell.net/) and a joint statement by academics in Australia, have condemned the military coup and lamented the detention of Turnell.

More than 720 people have so far signed the petition that calls for “Professor Turnell’s situation to be made among Australia’s top consular priorities”. 

Associate Professor Cheesman, who is Director of the ANU Myanmar Research Centre, said they were “deeply concerned” for their friend’s wellbeing and efforts to keep in contact have been difficult.

“We have a responsibility to advocate for his release from imprisonment. We know that he would feel the same responsibility, were any of us in his situation,” Cheesman said.

Board member and former director of the ANU Myanmar Research Centre Dr Charlotte Galloway said Sean is a friend and colleague to many at the ANU and across the world.

“He has been a longstanding supporter of Myanmar research here and is well known for his regular contributions to the Myanmar Update,” Dr Galloway said.

“Sean has worked tirelessly to support the wishes of Myanmar's people in developing, not just their economy, but to rebuild connections with the rest of the world. 

“As a community of academics we have a responsibility to advocate for his release from imprisonment. We know that he would feel the same responsibility, were any of us in his situation.

“I hope the petition will get wide support not only among staff at Australian universities, but in the wider community.”

Professor of International Security and Intelligence Studies at the ANU Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs John Blaxland echoed the call to stand up for Sean Turnell by signing the petition.

“Calling for the appointment of a special envoy to secure his release from detention in Myanmar is the least we can do as concerned scholars of Southeast Asian affairs and as fellow Australian citizens,” Professor Blaxland said.

“Sean represents the best of academe – a highly regarded scholar with a deep understanding of the region, who has sought to apply his knowledge and skills for the betterment of the people in Myanmar and as a demonstration of the best of Australia’s engagement with the region.

“His incarceration is an odious act pointing to the regime’s grave misjudgement and insecurity. If left unchecked, it sends a disturbing signal to those committed to such scholarship and such engagement in society.

“We cannot let this stand and hope that, by calling for this action, momentum will build in Australia, across Southeast Asia, and specifically in Myanmar, for the military leaders to reflect on the folly of their actions, take stock of the implications for Myanmar and for the region of continuing on this path, step back and see sense in changing course.”

You can sign Petition EN3917 - Appoint envoy to get Sean Turnell out of Myanmar jail here. It closes on 9 March.


Story: Michael Weaver
Photo: Sean Turnell at the 2013 ANU Myanmar Update conference, supplied

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Updated:  24 April, 2017/Responsible Officer:  Dean, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team