Junta holding Aung San Suu Kyi in a concrete hut in the jungle

Aung San Suu Kyi is being held in isolation in a whitewashed concrete-block hut without window blinds at a prison camp in a jungle clearing, according to one of the few people who has seen her since last year’s military coup.

Sean Turnell, the deposed leader’s former economic adviser, said authorities at the prison in Myanmar’s sprawling capital Naypyidaw had erected about 12 mobile phone blocking towers around the site, including a cluster around her hut.

The Australian academic, who was tried and convicted alongside the 77-year-old deposed leader in an “official secrets” case, said he believed these were intended to prevent any pictures of her emerging.

Turnell, who was released by the regime after 650 days in captivity, said that despite her jailing by Min Aung Hlaing’s military junta, Aung San Suu Kyi was in “good spirits” and following world events.

“She was fascinated by the travails of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, and horrified at [Vladimir] Putin and the state of the world,” Turnell told the Financial Times. “But she was confident that she would be back.” 

Turnell said camp authorities had denied Aung San Suu Kyi reading material, but he managed to get books to her via “informal and complex” channels.

The Australian’s account offers a rare glimpse into the daily life in detention of Myanmar’s ousted leader whose National League for Democracy won re-election to a second term shortly before the coup. The regime has barred her lawyers from speaking to the press.

Sean Turnell was released by the regime after 650 days in captivity © AP

After the regime convicted her, Turnell and three others of violating Myanmar’s official secrets act in September, Aung San Suu Kyi was forced to wear a prison-issue brown skirt and cream-coloured blouse. “She was always rake-thin, but she’s even thinner,” said Turnell. However, “she’s strong; she remains as she always was”. 

Turnell, 58, also gave details of his own incarceration, initially at Yangon’s notorious Insein prison, that shed light on one of Asia’s most isolated regimes. Myanmar’s military government spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

According to the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners, a campaign group, Min Aung Hlaing’s regime has killed more than 3,400 people and imprisoned thousands of others since the February 2021 putsch.

Ko Bo Kyi, the AAPP’s joint secretary, welcomed Turnell’s release, describing him as being “like a diplomatic hostage” and called for other prisoners’ release.

“Over 12,000 remain detained and this is a conservative figure,” he said. “The so-called releases were actually meant as a distraction for international opinion.”

Turnell, an economist at Australia’s Macquarie University and former Reserve Bank of Australia official, was arrested a few days after the coup while he was checking out of a Yangon hotel after an employee warned him police were on their way.

He was bundled away to a windowless room in a building outside Insein prison, where he said he was held and interrogated for two months. The room’s only feature was a steel chair bolted to the floor to which he was sometimes shackled.

Turnell said he was confronted with documents removed from his laptop, using what he was told were Russian and Chinese extraction devices.

“I figured out quickly that they wanted to use me as a way to get at Daw Suu, to suggest financial interests between foreigners and her,” Turnell said, referring to Aung San Suu Kyi.

He was then transferred inside Insein prison, which was filling up with protesters who had poured on to Yangon’s streets. From them he learnt prison survival skills, including how to make a knife from a tin lid.

In July 2021 Turnell was moved to Naypyidaw, where he was charged as defendant number one in the official secrets case alongside Aung San Suu Kyi and three other economic policymakers.

He conversed with Aung San Suu Kyi once a week before appearances at the trial, which was held in a repurposed room in an administrative building near the prison to which they were driven in buses under armed guard.

Routine documents covering what Turnell called the “normal processes of economic reform”, such as exchange rate policy, were presented by prosecutors as confidential information. Turnell said he was given only limited access to a lawyer, and a government-supplied Burmese interpreter, whom he did not trust.

“They never even pretended that it was real — the court, or that the verdict would ever be anything other than guilty,” he said.

Turnell, who is 154cm tall, said he lost about 20 per cent of his body weight, dropping to 50kg, and came down with Covid five times while imprisoned. In Naypyidaw he and other prisoners were fed boiled rice laced with “teeth-breaking small stones”.

He was released and deported this month along with three other foreign prisoners, including Vicky Bowman, the former UK ambassador, in what some analysts believed was an effort by the junta to soften international opposition to its plan to stage an election.

After returning to Sydney, Turnell said he was flooded by messages from Myanmar citizens who “were the first victims of all this” and apologised for his ordeal.

“The nicest people are ruled over by the worst people,” he said. “They don’t deserve it, but they seem to be fated to it.”

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