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Australian Economic Adviser Sentenced to Three Years in Myanmar

Sean Turnell, an economic adviser to Myanmar’s imprisoned civilian leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, was convicted alongside her of violating an official secrets act on Thursday and sentenced to three years in prison. Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi also received a sentence of three years, the latest in a series of convictions that already has her serving 23 years in prison.

Mr. Turnell was arrested in Myanmar five days after the military seized power in a coup last year that set off months of demonstrations and widespread killing. He pleaded not guilty to the charge and has remained in prison since February 2021, unable to meet with his lawyer or representatives of the Australian embassy.

Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the head of the army and the general behind the coup, reportedly said Mr. Turnell’s continued detention was in retaliation for Australia choosing to downgrade its embassy’s representation in Myanmar.

Australia replaced its ambassador with a lower-ranked representative this year to avoid legitimizing the junta. According to the state-owned newspaper New Light of Myanmar, the general said in an interview that, “If the Australian government had acted more positively, Turnell’s case would not have become so serious.”

Mr. Turnell, 57, was a professor of economics and a Myanmar specialist at Macquarie University in Sydney who joined Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi as an economic adviser after she was elected in 2015 and began forming her government. His stated focus was on establishing a stable economy and a sound banking system to attract foreign investment and create jobs.

Understanding the Situation in Myanmar

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A military coup. Following a military coup on Feb. 1, 2021, unrest gripped Myanmar. Peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations gave way to insurgent uprisings against the Tatmadaw, the country’s military, which ousted the country’s civilian leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi is a polarizing figure. The daughter of a hero of Myanmar’s independence, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi remains very popular at home. Internationally, her reputation has been tarnished by her recent cooperation with the same military generals who ousted her.

The coup ended a short span of quasi-democracy. In 2011, the Tatmadaw implemented parliamentary elections and other reforms. Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi came to power as state counselor in 2016, becoming the country’s de facto head of government.

The coup was preceded by a contested election. In November 2020, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party won 83 percent of the body’s available seats. The military, whose proxy party suffered a crushing defeat, refused to accept the results of the vote.

Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi faces years in prison. The ousted leader has been sentenced to a total of 20 years in prison so far, with many more charges pending against her. The U.N., foreign governments and Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s defenders have described the charges as politically motivated.

The regime is cracking down on dissent. A rights organization that monitors detentions in Myanmar said in March that the military junta  is  detaining 10,000 political prisoners. In July, the regime said it had executed four pro-democracy activists, the country’s first executions in more than 30 years.

He is now among more than 15,000 political prisoners arrested since the coup, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, an independent monitoring group. Also on trial were three former members of the finance ministry, U Kyaw Win, U Soe Win and U Set Aung. Two other foreigners are in prison in Myanmar on unrelated charges: Vicky Bowman, 56, a former British ambassador, and Turo Kubota, 26, a Japanese documentary filmmaker, who was arrested after covering a protest.

Ms. Bowman was the British ambassador to Myanmar from 2002 to 2006, and in 2013 founded the Myanmar Center for Responsible Business, which encourages good business practices. She and her Burmese husband, U Htein Lin, a prominent artist and a former political prisoner, were arrested on Aug. 24 and sentenced to one year in prison for violating immigration law by living at an unregistered address.

In another unrelated action, Myanmar on Wednesday sentenced a former doctor-turned- model, Nang Mwe San, to six years in prison for posting provocative photos and videos of herself on pornographic websites. In a statement, the junta said she “distributed paid pornographic photos and videos that could harm Myanmar culture and dignity.”

In an interview with The New York Times in 2019, when she was stripped of her medical license, Ms. Mwe San said, “Whatever I’m facing, I won’t give up my modeling profession. I just like to work as a photo model.” Because she was tried in a local military court, she was not allowed a lawyer and was convicted less than two weeks after her first court hearing.

Mr. Turnell had been a low-key technocrat who was not involved in politics. Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, 77, still faces seven additional corruption cases that could add 105 years to her sentence.

The military “is intent on ensuring that Aung San Suu Kyi never again plays any role in politics,” said David I. Steinberg, a Myanmar specialist at Georgetown University.

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