Interview with Liam Bartlett

  • Transcript
Subjects: Professor Sean Turnell in Myanmar.
08 February 2021

Liam Bartlett: We're joined this morning by Senator Marise Payne, who is the Minister for Foreign Affairs. Minister, good morning.

Marise Payne: Good morning, Liam.

Liam Bartlett: You would obviously be concerned about this. Have you heard anything about Sean Turnell’s situation, whether he's been charged or what situation he's in, where he's being held?

Marise Payne: Liam, we understand that Professor Turnell continues to be held by police and we are seeking access to him with the highest level advocacy, both with the ambassador here from Myanmar in Australia, with the most senior levels of leadership in Myanmar itself through our ambassador and our DFAT officials. It is of the utmost concern to Australia that we receive that access. And we are continuing also to call for his immediate release from detention.

Liam Bartlett: Is he being detained at the police watch house or whatever they call it there, Minister? Do we know his exact geographic location?

Marise Payne: Liam, I understand it to be a police facility. And, of course, things on the ground in Yangon and in Naypyidaw are moving very quickly. So, I am in regular contact through DFAT officials, with our post in Yangon, with officials who are working hard with our Myanmar counterparts to secure his release. It is very difficult in terms of both communications, protest activity on the streets the last few days, also restricting movement, because as you would appreciate, we have to also ensure the safety of our own officials in a situation like this.

Liam Bartlett: So our embassy is still operational up there?

Marise Payne: Yes, it is. And Ambassador Andrea Faulkner and her team are doing a very, very good job; acknowledge the hard work and the difficulties that they are facing in doing that. They are not just supporting Professor Turnell, but other Australians who remain in Myanmar at the moment and ensuring that we have as much information as we can being fed back here to Australia. We've had significant gaps in internet connectivity, in telephone connectivity. So in the circumstances, I'm very grateful for the work they are doing.

Liam Bartlett: How many Australians, Minister, are in Myanmar at the moment that you potentially have to look after?

Marise Payne: There is a number of Australians who we believe have played roles working with government, who are important consular cases for us. But every Australian is an important consular case. There are at least 40 people that I'm also aware of who had been seeking to leave Myanmar. So, we will continue to reach out to them through our consular efforts, both on the ground in Yangon and Naypyidaw as communications allow and of course, to our teams here in our consular crisis division. Our consular crisis division has been working 24 hours a day to 12 hour shifts for a very long time now. And this is obviously a new area of work for them, which they are very focussed on.

Liam Bartlett: Understood. But when you say you've talked to Myanmar's ambassador in Canberra, called them in, I've got to ask, you know, are they connected to the generals or are they part- because they're part of the old government system as ambassadors, so do they have any clout back home?

Marise Payne: Well, there is a connection through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and it is a formal process calling in an ambassador, and one which we instituted on Saturday. It is a clear and very deliberate sign from Australia that we are extremely concerned and deeply disappointed at the detention of Professor Turnell, and seek not only, as I said, to have consular access to him as soon as possible, but most importantly, to call for his release. We have no clarity-

Liam Bartlett: [Interrupts] But Minister, would the generals up there be listening? I mean, have you spoken to any of the generals?

Marise Payne: I've sought a phone call with the new Minister for Foreign Affairs, who is newly appointed, and I'm waiting for that to occur this week. And our officials there are advocating directly with the senior ministers who have been appointed, including, as you say, senior members of the military. That is the challenge of dealing with the new government in this context and also a challenge of dealing with communications difficulties.

Liam Bartlett: So at this stage, we don't know if Professor Turnell has been charged with anything.

Marise Payne: Not at this stage. We understand that his early engagement was with immigration officials and we are awaiting further information on his circumstances.

Liam Bartlett: You'd be aware of the reports that the US and the UK both managed to get their people out and that Professor Turnell unfortunately didn't. I mean, were we late to the party on this?

Marise Payne: I think this is a very fast moving situation, Liam. I think there's a number of challenges at play. We were very closely engaged with Professor Turnell, who, of course, had been a senior economic adviser to former state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi. And the work that we had been doing with him and with other Australians, a number of Australians who we are also dealing with, there are very limited flights to Australia from Myanmar at this point in time – in fact, only one or two of which I am aware. We will continue to work with those Australians. But I don't think it's helpful to speculate, particularly not based on third-hand reports from those of us who were not there, on the circumstances. Most importantly, we want to endeavour to secure his release and to secure consular access to him.

Liam Bartlett: Was it true, Minister, that DFAT, your department, had plans to get him out, but the Myanmar police beat them to it?

Marise Payne: Liam, we had been working closely with Professor Turnell as to his priorities in terms of our consular undertakings. I don't comment directly on individual cases because there are privacy restrictions attached to that. But suffice to say that the Ambassador and her senior team had been working closely with Professor Turnell and continue to do so with other Australians at the current time about the most appropriate solutions to address the circumstances in which they all find themselves now. It's a very different Myanmar than it was just a week ago.

Liam Bartlett: I'll take that as a yes.

Minister?

Marise Payne: Thank you Liam.

Liam Bartlett: Thank you. Minister for Foreign Affairs, Senator Marise Payne, and the fate of Professor Sean Turnell. Doesn't sound great, does it? You wouldn't like to be in his shoes at the moment up in Myanmar.

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