23 Feb 2021

Australia calls Myanmar's Vice-Senior General in attempts to free detained academic Sean Turnell

9:48 pm on 23 February 2021

Australia's second-most senior military officer has held a phone call with a top member of Myanmar's military junta, as Australia continues to press the regime to free detained academic Sean Turnell.

Australian economics professor Sean Turnell and Aung San Suu Kyi

Australian economics professor Sean Turnell and Aung San Suu Kyi Photo: LINKEDIN

It's the first time that Australia has managed to gain access to the upper echelons of the new military government since the coup of 1 February.

The Australian government has not yet released any details of the call between Vice-Chief of the Australian Defence Force David Johnston and Vice-Senior General Soe Win.

The ABC has been told the two men discussed the case of Professor Turnell, who used to work as an adviser to deposed leader Aung San Suu Kyi before being arrested on 6 February.

But it's not clear if Vice-Admiral Johnston used the opportunity to press the military to relinquish power and free civilian political leaders.

Some state media outlets in Myanmar gave some prominence to the exchange.

One newspaper said during the conversation, Vice-Senior General Soe Win compared Myanmar' military - known as the Tatmadaw - directly to the Australian armed forces.

The paper said Vice-Admiral Johnston stressed that Australia was a "development partner" and would provide assistance to Myanmar to fight the Covid-19 pandemic.

Both men also reportedly discussed "the reason(s) of the Tatmadaw [for] taking all the powers of the country" although state media did not provide any further details.

YANGON, MYANMAR - FEBRUARY 20: Anti-coup protesters hold placards as they protest against the military coup Saturday, February 20, 2021, in Yangon, Myanmar. Stringer / Anadolu Agency

Photo: AFP

The call comes as protests swell against the military coup in Myanmar.

On the weekend, police opened fire on protesters in the city of Mandalay, killing two protesters and injuring more than 20.

Call receives mixed feedback

Human rights groups have slammed the phone call, accusing the Australian government of bolstering the credibility to a violent and illegitimate regime.

Rawan Arraf from the Australian Centre for International Justice said the call was "unbelievable".

"Soe Win is a man designated for sanctions by the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada, and is credibly accused of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity," she said.

"While the rest of the world is coordinating targeted action against the junta, Australia lends credibility to it by having its senior military leadership host phone calls."

But some analysts defended the call and said it was reasonable for the Australian government to use every opportunity to urge the military not to use violence on protesters.

"It is essential that Australia and others take every opportunity to urge restraint on Myanmar's security forces and secure the real ease of political prisoners, including Australia's Sean Turnell," said Aaron Connelly, a Singapore-based analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

"By using military officers to deliver that message, Australia avoids conferring any legitimacy on the Myanmar armed forces' coup," he said.

The US, Canada and the United Kingdom have all hit Myanmar's military leaders with sanctions, while New Zealand has suspended high-level contact with the regime while imposing a travel ban on its top generals.

Australia has announced it is reviewing foreign aid and military cooperation with Myanmar in the wake of the coup but has not yet announced any concrete measures in response.


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