Christopher Lamb, president of the Australia Myanmar Institute and a former ambassador to Myanmar, said Dr Turnell’s commitment to helping the developing nation was absolute and he had provided his expertise to various figures and organisations over the years.
“He has done that not according to a party line: it’s what he sees as best for the country, in conjunction with others, including local economists whom he has worked with,” Mr Lamb said.
He said Dr Turnell was a “thorough technocrat” and “not someone who would be involved in any kind of political scheming”.
NSW Labor MP Janelle Saffin, an expert on governance in Myanmar who has known Dr Turnell for 25 years, said his devotion to the south-east Asian country was unmatched and he had acted honourably in the interests of economic and democratic development.
“He loves Myanmar, the people of Myanmar and he gave advice freely … across the board to everyone,” Ms Saffin said, urging his release and convening of Myanmar’s national parliament according to the November election results.
Tim Harcourt, an economist at UNSW, said Dr Turnell had devoted his life to Myanmar and had given “frank and fearless advice” in the country’s best interests.
“He is not an apparatchik, a flunky gun for hire, he is more a guy that will give you the best advice based on his analytical view and his experience of Myanmar,” Mr Harcourt said.
Dr Turnell, who has a wife and daughter, is being held at a police station. Australian diplomats have visited him and reported he does not appear to be receiving any cruel treatment, according to Mr Lamb.
A long-time academic and former analyst at the Reserve Bank of Australia, Dr Turnell has been a special economic consultant for Suu Kyi since 2017 and director of the Myanmar Development Institute since 2016.
He has long been in Suu Kyi’s orbit, and on her release from house arrest in 2010 wrote for The Age about how she had inspired admiration “for her qualities of great courage, commitment, compassion, and extraordinary generosity to those who have kept her locked up for 15 of the past 21 years”.
He has criticised the “most egregious human rights abuses of forced labour, routine mass rape, attacks on ethnic minorities, and all manner of horrors to match the most despotic of regimes”.
The day after the coup, Dr Turnell posted on Twitter: “Safe for now but heartbroken for what all this means for the people of Myanmar. The bravest, kindest people I know. They deserve so much better.”
Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne said on Saturday the federal government was “deeply concerned about reports of Australian and other foreign nationals being detained arbitrarily in Myanmar” and was providing consular assistance.
Myanmar’s ambassador to Australia has been called in by the federal government, which conveyed its concern over the detention.
Hundreds of people gathered in Melbourne’s Federation Square on Saturday, calling for Australia to cut ties with the Burmese military following the coup.
Army chief Min Aung Hlaing seized power alleging fraud in a November 8 election that Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won in a landslide. The army’s claims were dismissed by the country’s electoral commission.
Thousands of protesters have since taken to the streets in Myanmar, chanting: “Military dictator, fail, fail; Democracy, win, win.”
In a bid to shut down the protests, the junta has closed internet access and blocked social media.
Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director Phil Robertson said Dr Turnell’s arbitrary detention was part of the military’s sweeping up of anyone associated with Suu Kyi.
He said Australia should not let any “hostage diplomacy” deter next steps like terminating the Australian military’s technical co-operation program with the Tatmadaw [military].
Mr Robertson said Australian military co-operation with Myanmar had to end as it was “totally unacceptable to be bolstering any sort of capacity in a murderous military force”.
He said the coup proved the Myanmar army’s mindset had not changed and urged Australia to join other governments in imposing meaningful, targeted sanctions on those leading the coup and military-controlled business conglomerates MEHL and MEC.
“The US, EU and others are already moving quickly along this track and Australia should not be a laggard in this important effort to demonstrate the real costs to Myanmar’s generals of their actions,” Mr Robertson said.
“Right now, as the internet is shut down in Myanmar, the situation is growing increasingly dangerous as the military faces a growing civil disobedience movement. Immediate action by the international community is needed to forestall the possibility of widespread arrests or a bloody military crackdown like we have seen in Myanmar’s past.”
What in the World
Fergus Hunter is a crime reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald.
Michael Ruffles is the chief sub-editor of The Sydney Morning Herald.