Cambodian PM Embarrassed After Myanmar Junta Fails to Free Detained Australian

By The Irrawaddy 8 February 2022

Sean Turnell, the detained Australian professor and key economic adviser to ousted Myanmar leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, remains in Yangon’s Insein Prison, despite a claim by Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen that he had been released on Sunday.

Turnell was arrested on February 6 last year, a few days after the coup, and charged with breaching the Official Secrets Act.

Confusion arose on Monday when Hun Sen wrongly announced that Professor Turnell had been released on Sunday. The Cambodian PM had lobbied coup leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing to free him during his visit to Naypyitaw last month, at the request of Australia’s foreign minister.

Hun Sen is the current chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and was the first foreign leader to visit Myanmar since the coup.

While his controversial visit drew public fury and international criticism, Cambodia’s government defended the trip as yielding potential steps towards resolving the crisis in Myanmar.

Cambodia highlighted the plight of Sean Turnell as one issue Hun Sen’s visit could help resolve.

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen (left) greets Myanmar military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing during a meeting in Naypyitaw on January 7, 2022. / AFP

However, its efforts ended in humiliation on Monday with junta spokesperson Major General Zaw Min Tun refuting Hun Sen’s announcement that Professor Turnell had been freed. He told the BBC Burmese service that there were no plans to release him.

After causing distress and confusion, Hun Sen admitted that he was wrong in taking credit for helping to free Turnell when he hadn’t been released and asked for understanding.

“In reality, the Australian national was not released,” Hun Sen said in a Facebook post late on Monday. “The confusion is because of me getting information wrong, please forgive me for the unintentional mistake,” he wrote.

Cambodia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Hun Sen had raised the issue of Sean Turnell’s detention during his talks with Snr-Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, and added that the junta boss had assured him that he would reconsider the case once the court process was over.

Professor Turnell faces a potential maximum prison term of 14 years under the Official Secrets Act charge. His co-defendants include Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and four senior government figures.

Australia’s foreign minister released a statement calling on the military regime to free Turnell.

“The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) is providing all possible consular assistance to Professor Turnell. This includes ensuring he is able to speak to his family and to the Australian Embassy, and supporting his health and welfare in detention. DFAT is also providing consular assistance to Professor Turnell’s family,” the statement said.

“Consistent with basic standards of justice and transparency, we expect that Professor Turnell should have unimpeded access to his lawyers, and that Australian officials be able to observe his court proceedings,” the statement added.

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