A website has been established concerning the ongoing detention of Professor Sean Turnell. Some of his friends have also written reflections on Sean. David Throsby’s reflection is available here. My personal reflection on Sean is below or here.
I don’t recall when I first met Sean. But he is the kind of person you feel as though you have known for a long time, even if it hasn’t been that long.
From 2011, after holding a workshop at the University of Melbourne, I began working on a collaborative volume on Law, Society and Transition in Myanmar. Published in 2014, Sean contributed a chapter on the ‘Legislative Foundations of Myanmar’s Economic Reforms’, in which he refers to the ‘messiness’ of Myanmar’s economic transition and suggested that much ‘heavy-lifting’ in terms of economic reform was still needed in the years ahead.
In 2012, Sean attended a workshop on the legal reform process in Myanmar that we hosted at the National University of Singapore, where I was working at the time. In 2013, Sean was again passing through Singapore, either on his way to or from Myanmar. He did me a favour by giving a guest lecture in my class on the Rule of Law in Myanmar. I still remember how he captured students’ attention during that class. He told the story of the collapse of the economy and banking sector in Myanmar under military rule and the growth of the black market. He pulled out a kyat bank note from his wallet and spoke about the disconnect between the official exchange rate and the black market rate prior to 2012. He told the story of how the floating of the kyat was a transformational moment in the economic development of Myanmar. Among other things, Sean is a good storyteller.
Over the years, I had the chance to learn from Sean and share dinner at many conferences. In 2016, Sean participated in a workshop I organised at the University of New South Wales which led to a chapter he published on ‘Microfinance in Myanmar: Unleashing the Potential’ (The Business of Transition, CUP 2017). The subheading of Sean’s chapter speaks to his eminent optimism, always seeing the potential of people and situations. He spoke critically of the ‘warped and distorted co-operative movement in Myanmar’. In the chapter he articulates his commitment to the ideal of ‘providing reliable financial services to people otherwise denied them’, while realistically acknowledging that microfinance is ‘no panacea for the establishment of a fully functioning financial sector’.
Sean’s work is the starting point for any research on Myanmar’s economy. I supervised a law student who wrote a research essay on the banking sector in Myanmar and of course it was Sean’s publications that were the first point of reference.
In 2019, Sean again generously helped me as I organised an interdisciplinary trip to Myanmar, with colleagues from across the faculties of medicine, engineering, law, architecture and social science at UNSW. Sean spent much of his time in Naypyidaw, and like most foreigners stayed in the eerie hotels there. While he must have been truly exhausted and exasperated by the endless circus of conferences, he still agreed to contribute to the seminar. Sean spoke about the work of the Myanmar Development Institute, the economic think tank set up by the National League for Democracy Government.
In the mid to late 2010s I often crossed paths with Sean at hotels in Naypyidaw or Yangon, and also at Yangon International Airport. He always had a smile at the ready, even if the constant demands on his expertise meant that he was pressed for time to chat.
A chance meeting at the airport on 23 January 2020 was the last time I saw Sean. And like many of us, it would be my last trip to Myanmar before covid-19 and the coup. Sean and I had dinner in an empty, rather sterile airport food court, swapping stories and experiences. I recall that we dived right in to some difficult issues, including the Rohingya crisis and the ICJ case. During our conversation, Sean told me he wasn’t going to return to academia, but the impression I got was that he wanted to do what he could to help in Myanmar. At that time, there was every anticipation the NLD would potentially win the next election and serve a second term in office. He left to catch his plane, which was leaving before mine, and I sat weighing the challenges we had discussed but also the glass half full attitude with which Sean approached them.
Academia is both a wonderful and strange field, and staying committed to praxis can be challenging. Yet Sean did this well. He is among the most generous academics I know and treats everyone with great respect, regardless of the stage of their career or their gender. Looking back, I certainly owe a lot to Sean. The next dinner will be on me.