‘No Leverage’ With Burma Military Junta, Former Foreign Minister Says

February 9, 2021 Updated: February 11, 2021

Following the arrest of an Australian advisor to Aung San Suu Kyi by the Burma (also known as Myanmar) military junta, former foreign minister Alexander Downer believes there is little the Australian government can do to secure his release.

Sean Turnell, a professor of economics from Macquarie University in Sydney, was the first foreign national confirmed arrested after the military coup occurred on Feb.1.

Downer said the current foreign affairs minister Marise Payne would be making representations to the junta.  However, it wouldn’t be easy.

“It’s not easy to make representations to the Myanmar military, I know from experience,” Downer told the ABC.

“I think we would have almost no leverage,” he said. “It would depend on personal relationships that the ambassador has developed, and other staff in the Australian Embassy.”

Turnell is a director of the Myanmar Development Institute and has served as special consultant to Aung San Suu Kyi since Dec. 2017.

Suu Kyi prior to the coup held the position of State Counsellor of Myanmar, which is equal to the position of prime minister, and is the head of the National League of Democracy, Burma’s former ruling political party.

I guess you will soon hear of it, but I am being detained,” Turnell told Reuters on Saturday. “Being charged with something, but not sure what. I am fine and strong and not guilty of anything.”

Turnell had previously written in a post on Twitter that he was safe. But that he was heartbroken for what the coup meant for Burma.

Turnell’s live interview with BBC radio on the following day was cut short after authorities entered his room during the call.

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne has called for the immediate release of the Turnell from detention in Burma.

“He is a highly regarded advisor and a highly regarded member of the academic community in Australia,” Payne said on Monday.

But Turnell has been critical of the country’s military in the past, saying they continued to “resist change”.

“Following the end of the military dictatorship, many ex-military were found places in the public service, which is inhibiting the country’s opportunities to rebuild,” he said in 2019.

“The military will not easily eschew the power they have held on to for decades; the military budget remains completely separate from the national budget, and the civilian arm of government has no say on the military’s spending decisions.”

Tim Harcourt, a friend of Turnell and economist at the University of New South Wales, speculated that Turnell’s arrest maybe not just be related to his connection to the Suu Kyi.

Harcourt believes it could have something to do with Turnell’s knowledge of classified information.

“There’s some speculation he may know things that the generals may not want people to know,” Harcourt told Sky News. “Maybe where they keep their Swiss bank accounts, I’m not sure.”