CANBERRA, Australia — Sean Turnell, an Australian economist who spent almost two years in prison in Myanmar, received a hero’s welcome at the Australian Parliament building on Thursday, where MPs stood up to a standing ovation and the Prime Minister praised his courage, optimism and perseverance.
Turnell, an adviser to Myanmar’s elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi, was among American, Japanese and British nationals released on Nov. 17 as part of a broader prisoner amnesty on Myanmar’s National Victory Day.
Days after Myanmar’s military took control of the Southeast Asian country in February 2021, Turnell was arrested as he prepared to leave the country. In September, he was sentenced to three years in prison for violating the country’s Official Secrets Act and immigration laws.
The 58-year-old Sydney resident and his wife Ha Vu sat in the House of Representatives on Thursday for the last sitting of the year as MPs gave the couple a standing ovation.
“We are very happy to see from the response in the room that they are back,” Prime Minister Anthony Albanese told the couple.
Albanese said the military had “cheated human rights” in Myanmar, where Turnell worked intermittently for 30 years.
Albanese thanked the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and Japan for helping Australia’s diplomatic efforts to secure Turnell’s release.
“What he endured during his 650 days in prison is something no human being should have to endure, yet he did it graciously, even in inhumane conditions, with profound humanity,” Albanese told parliament.
Speaking directly to Turnell, Albanese added, “Our relief and joy at your release is also tinged with no small amount of awe, reverence and respect for your courage, optimism and resilience.”
Turnell did not speak to Parliament. But in an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corp., he described his ordeal and his joy at being reunited with his family.
An interrogator told him that he would never see his wife or child again.
Turnell said they were originally kept in isolation in a room called a “box,” which was like a windowless shipping container with a concrete floor.
Later, Insein was imprisoned in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city. He was later taken to the capital, Naypyidaw, where he was held near a hut where Suu Kyi was imprisoned. They talked every week.
“The very first thing he said was, ‘I’m sorry, Sean, Ha, your dad and your whole family for bringing you into our problems,'” Turnell said.
Insein prison marked the end of solitary confinement, but was “fully open to the elements.”
“In Yangon open to the elements, it means monsoons, it means incredible heat, insects, rats, these horrible big scorpions that get into the cell,” Turnell said.
“Of course, his mind was that I was with people, other political prisoners. I’ll never forget the moment a very young political prisoner came up to me and said, “Sean, you’re safe now. You are with us, added Turnell.
“But I remember feeling, ‘Well, yeah, I’m with you, but we’re all here,'” Turnell laughed.