Australian economics professor Sean Turnell woke at the Chatrium Hotel in Yangon about 5am on February 6, 2021 and checked his emails.
Turnell had been trying to get out of Myanmar’s biggest city since the country’s democratically elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi was overthrown in a military coup five days earlier.
The 57-year-old had been working in the unsettled South-East Asian nation as an economic adviser to Suu Kyi and knew he could be arrested over his close association with her.
Among the emails in Turnell’s inbox that morning was an anonymous note sent about 4am warning him that military intelligence officers had taken over the hotel and were monitoring a security camera focused on his door.
Turnell says the email instructed him to get out now if he could: ‘And so I thought, “Oh, s***, this is a problem”.’
Australian economist Sean Turnell was arrested in Myanmar’s February 2021 coup and taken to the South East-Asian nation’s notorious Insein Prison near Yangon. Family members of prisoners sit outside the jail waiting for news of their relatives nine months after the coup
The honorary professor of Economics at Sydney’s Macquarie University would spend the next 650 days in a series of prisons facing trumped-up spying charges.
His new life would feature midnight interrogations while chained to a chair in a room Turnell dubbed ‘The Box’, sharing a filthy concrete cell with rats the size of guinea pigs and being transported to and from court in leg irons and handcuffs.
He would be kicked, punched in the head, and have a cigarette lighter held to his hair, while having to deny ludicrous accusations he worked for British security agency M16.
To keep himself sane, Turnell would recite lists of United States presidents as well as Australian and British prime ministers, and read Enid Blyton books.
All the while, supporters led by his wife, fellow economist Ha Vu, fought a campaign for his release which enlisted King Charles, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Foreign Minister Penny Wong as well as various diplomats and academics.
Turnell, who had never previously been issued a parking ticket, has now documented all these experiences in a memoir aptly titled An Unlikely Prisoner.
Insein – pronounced ‘insane’ – was built near Yangon (formerly Rangoon) by British colonial authorities in 1887 when Myanmar was still known as Burma, and housed 14,000 inmates at the height of the coup. The prison is pictured
The morning military intelligence came to his hotel, Turnell called Australia’s ambassador to Myanmar, Andrea Faulkner, who told the onetime Reserve Bank analyst she would meet him in the lobby.
‘By the time I got down into the lobby the police and military intelligence were there and arrested me pretty much straight away,’ Turnell tells Daily Mail Australia.
‘It was pretty nerve racking but probably not as nerve racking as it sounds in that I didn’t think they’d actually take me away and certainly not take me away for that long.’
Turnell is bespectacled and describes himself as ‘just a little guy’, standing about 153cm (5 feet) tall. He entered prison weighing 56kg and came out at 46kg.
‘It was pretty scary for me because I’m almost the archetypal nerdy professor,’ Turnell says.
‘The idea of being arrested and then carted off to Insein prison, which is one of the most notorious prisons in South-East Asia, was just horrifying beyond belief.’
Sean Turnell, pictured with wife Ha Vu, is bespectacled and calls himself ‘just a little guy’, standing about 153cm (5 feet) tall. He entered prison weighing 56kg and came out at 46kg
Insein – pronounced ‘insane’ – was built near Yangon (formerly Rangoon) by British colonial authorities in 1887 when Myanmar was still known as Burma, and housed 14,000 inmates at the height of the coup.
Before Turnell was taken there he spent two months alone in The Box, a concrete-floored room next to the detectives’ headquarters just outside the walls of the jail.
‘It was like being in one of those small shipping containers,’ Turnell says. ‘It only had one slit window so the police could look in on me.’
The room was bare but for a metal chair in the centre which was bolted to the floor and had wrist and ankle manacles attached to it. Turnell was chained to the chair whenever interrogators came to question him.
These sessions would often take place in the middle of the night and usually involved three interrogators who set up a table in front of the chair.
One would sit opposite the prisoner and ask questions, assisted by an interpreter, while the third moved around the room, which Turnell says was ‘really disconcerting’.
On one occasion that man held a cigarette lighter to the back of his head and singed his hair.
Most of the inmates in adjacent cells when Turnell arrived at Insein were foreigners – Taiwanese, Malaysians, Chinese – many of them drug traffickers. Above is a smuggled sketch of inmates inside the prison in July 2021
‘The main accusation against me was that I was working for M16,’ Turnell says. ‘I’d say, “Look, I’m not M16. I’m an economics professor. You can Google me. You can see my glasses and all the rest of it”.
‘The first time they put the leg irons on me I said, “I’m not Jason Bourne. I’m not going to be a threat to you”.’
Except for his interrogators Turnell had no visitors or contact with the outside world for two months and devised memory exercises to occupy his brain.
In one, he had to name all the US presidents from first to last, then last to first.
He ticked off British prime ministers from Lord Salisbury to Boris Johnson, and their Australian counterparts.
In another mental activity Turnell tried to list all 50 US states. ‘I was most discombobulated one day because I came up with 51,’ he says. ‘It took me days to remember that Omaha is not a state.’
Each cell at Insein, five or six steps long and three across, opened onto a yard where Turnell would congregate with 70 or 80 other inmates each morning and afternoon. This sketch of conditions inside the jail was smuggled out in 2021
Of most comfort though was simply pacing up and down The Box – eight steps end to end – and counting the laps. If he completed 1,250 crossings for the day that was 10,000 steps: ‘I used to feel good if I went above that’.
Turnell says he was not treated as badly as some other prisoners who heard being tortured.
‘I was only sort of physically assaulted a couple of times,’ he says. ‘Very minor by comparison to my Burmese colleagues who had things like electrodes and so on attached to them and were really beaten up.’
Next stop for Turnell was Insein where he was put into a stinking hot cell on his own.
Turnell’s shoes were taken but he could wear his own clothes, with thongs. His watch was confiscated but he was allowed a small clock.
Planks served as a bed which was made softer with two or three blankets. Turnell was allowed a camping mattress for a while.
‘Of course you didn’t really need a covering blanket because it was so hot all the time,’ he says. ‘You would end up by the morning having things walk all over you.’
Turnell contracted Covid-19 five times while in prison despite being vaccinated four times – twice with with Sinovac and twice with the Chinese Sinopharm. He was the first Insein inmate to be vaccinated (above), in May 2021
Rainwater came into the cell under the door, as did black scorpions bigger than a man’s hand and centipedes up to 25cm long.
‘Rats could just come and go,’ Turnell says. ‘I used to try and build a barrier at the iron door.
‘People usually exaggerate these things but these things were bloody big and awful. I would say as big as a guinea pig.’
Then there was the squat toilet at the back of the cell. Turnell refers to the ‘worst toilet in Scotland’ that features in a famous scene from the 1996 film Trainspotting but says it was even worse.
‘Accumulated filth had been built up over a century,’ he says. ‘Sometimes they would get clogged and overfilled and back up and the stuff would come down into the cell.’
Most of the inmates in adjacent cells when Turnell arrived were foreigners – Taiwanese, Malaysians, Chinese – many of them drug traffickers.
‘With my sheltered life, the idea that I’d be living cheek by jowl with narcotics traffickers is so absurd,’ Turnell says. ‘But funnily enough I got on really well with them.’
Sean Turnell poses with Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade head of mission in Myanmar, Angela Corcoran, after being freed
Each cell, five or six steps long and three across, opened onto a yard where Turnell would congregate with 70 or 80 other inmates each morning and afternoon.
Turnell did not have trouble with the other political prisoners inmates in the yard.
‘I had no experience of a jail at all but I’d imagine that they’d be places of gangs and standover and all that,’ he says. ‘And I dare say there were probably bits of that but from everything that I saw the prisoners were incredibly protective of each other.’
Inmates were woken with bells at 4.45am and Buddhist inmates would chant for an hour. Everyone was let into the yard about 6am and the first of two daily meals was served half an hour later.
An Unlikely Prisoner by Sean Turnell is published by Penguin
Food – usually a watery lentil soup but occasionally fish or ‘some sort of meat’ – was delivered in three communal plastic buckets which would be left there for an hour.
The unhygienic conditions contributed to Turnell catching Covid-19 times and he broke a couple of teeth chewing rice contaminated with pieces of iron.
Inmates were put back in their cells about 8.30am, let out again at 3pm, fed the same way about 3.30pm and locked up at 5pm for the night.
After three months in custody Turnell was able to make phone contact with Ha through the embassy and spoke to her on average once a fortnight.
A month or so later Turnell began getting food packages from the embassy, including Anzac biscuits and brandy-laced fruitcakes Ha had baked and sent via the diplomatic pouch.
He also secured a supply line of books, including The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Lord of the Rings, which he read five times.
In what Turnell calls ‘a moment of inspired madness’, his sister Lisa sent him copies of the Enid Blyton Famous Five books he’d read as a child.
‘The incongruity of it,’ of it he says. ‘I’m sitting there in this prison in the middle of Asia and I’m reading about lashings of ginger beer and all the rest of it.’
During Turnell’s time in custody his wife Ha baked him ANZAC biscuits and sent him books via the diplomatic pouch from Canberra. Turnell says these care packages him sane and helped his physical health
Turnell’s supporters, led by his wife, fellow economist Ha Vu , fought a campaign for his release which enlisted Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Foreign Minister Penny Wong. All are pictured above in December 2022 two weeks after his release from jail
Turnell was then transferred to Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw in handcuffs and leg irons for his trial. It was there he faced his worst physical experiences being transferred to and from court.
About 50 prisoners would be crammed into a truck with their handcuffs attached to a chain, trying to stay standing up.
‘The truck would sway and people got sick and started vomiting and that set everyone else off vomiting,’ Turnell says. ‘Some people fainted and had to be held upright lest they fell down into the muck.’
Turnell was found guilty and sentenced to three years’ prison for breaching Myanmar’s Official Secrets Act. Some of his lowest moments came after being transferred to another prison at Yamethin, 90km north of Naypyidaw.
Turnell had expected to be deported upon conviction rather than spend any more time in jail.
‘I thought I may end up having to serve this and I don’t know if I can do it,’ he says. ‘So I think that was probably the lowest moment.’
After two days at Yamethin, Turnell was taken back to Insein where he was kept for two more months.
This time he was placed in solitary confinement, near the prison’s death row inmates, inside a fenced wooden hut.
On November 17, 2022, a guard surprised Turnell when he appeared at his door about 7am and said, ‘Sean, good news, you’re going home’.
‘I remember I just looked at him and said, “Please, tell me you’re not kidding, you can’t muck around with stuff like this”,’ he recalls.
‘And he said, “No, no , no, we’re not kidding but you’ve got to pack whatever you want and be out of here in ten minutes”.’
The day after his release Turnell was back in Australia and reunited with Ha, to whom he has dedicated his book.
With the military junta still in charge of Myanmar it is unlikely Turnell can return to the country anytime in the near future.
‘One of the things we spoke about to keep out spirits up among the other prisoners was that the criminals are outside of Myanmar’s prisons,’ he says.
‘It’s the good people who are on the inside.’
An Unlikely Prisoner by Sean Turnell is published by Penguin and available from November 14.