The federal government has “serious concerns” for an Australian detained in Myanmar as foreigners caught up in the country’s military coup situation describe “living in fear”.
Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne confirmed an Australian had been detained at a police station and others were seeking consular assistance.
The ABC has identified the Australian as Sean Turnell, an economics advisor to Aung San Suu Kyi who was detained in Monday’s coup along with other democratically elected leaders.
“We are providing consular assistance to a number of Australians in Myanmar,” Ms Payne said in a statement.
“In particular, we have serious concerns about an Australian who has been detained at a police station.
“We have called in the Myanmar Ambassador and registered the Australian government’s deep concern about these events.
“The Australian Embassy in Yangon continues to contact Australians in Myanmar to ascertain their safety, to the extent that communications allow.”
Mr Turnell is director of the Myanmar Development Institute in Naypyitaw and has served as special consultant to Aung San Suu Kyi since December 17.
He is also a professor of economics at Macquarie University.
Mr Turnell posted on his Twitter account earlier this week about the volatile situation, including a photo featuring him sitting beside Ms Suu Kyi.
Thanks everyone for your concern yesterday. Safe for now but heartbroken for what all this means for the people of Myanmar. The bravest, kindest people I know. They deserve so much better. pic.twitter.com/RA2YvCOEF7
— sean turnell (@SeanTurnell) February 1, 2021
It comes amid the biggest uprising against the coup so far as tens of thousands of people took to the streets on Saturday to demand the release of elected leader Suu Kyi despite a blockade on the internet by the junta.
Foreigners living in Myanmar say fear has settled across the country, as police stations get boarded up, social media is shut down and teachers rally against the military coup.
Speaking on the condition of strict anonymity, for fear of repercussions from the military, ex-pats in the country have spoken about what life is life at the moment, with many of them saying they are just waiting for violence to break out.
The New Daily can’t say who they are, where they live or even what nationality they are – but they are bearing witness to history.
Currently, there are no flights in or out of the country and along with Ms Suu Kyi and her loyal ministers, citizens including lawyers, writers, activists and Buddhist monks are being rounded up.
There are a small number of Australians still there, many of whom have families, but the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has refused to answer repeated questions from The New Daily as to whether there is a plan to get them out should violence erupt.
The Australian government is facing increasing pressure to end its military cooperation programs with Myanmar and expand existing sanctions placed on some of the country’s top generals, who are accused of leading a genocide against the country’s Rohingya minority in 2017.
Australia has run a program helping Myanmar’s military for years.
Australian government documents describe it as a “modest program of engagement with Myanmar, focusing on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, peacekeeping training, English language training, and officer education and professionalisation.”
On Tuesday, Labor, The Greens and Human Rights Watch called on the Morrison government to cut ties with the military.
So far, the Coalition has been reluctant to do so, for fear that it will send Myanmar into the arms of China.
“Right now people are scared,” said “Josh”, who spoke on the condition of anonymity via Signal, an encrypted messaging app.
“The reaction is split between the generations,” he said.
The current generation is more vocal, but the older generation that experienced the previous military rule are living in fear.”
For almost 70 years there has been a power struggle in Myanmar between the military and those fighting for democracy – with the latter often on the losing side.
Since the November elections, which returned the Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD with an 80 per cent landslide, the military has claimed election fraud – though no evidence has been found by the electoral commission.
On Monday, the military handed power to their leader, senior general Min Aung Hlaing.
A small number of people were elated – to celebrate, the general’s son was filmed throwing money over a balcony to his employees.
But most of the country is in shock.
Josh said that out of fear, Myanmar people have learnt to protest in unusual and peaceful ways.
The country has a bloody history of crackdowns on protests and the military has been seen entering the largest city, Yangon, with what appears to be crates of ammunition.
But as the days roll on, supporters of Ms Suu Kyi are becoming bolder.
Dozens of youths have paraded in the southeastern city of Dawei and teachers and students gathered in universities on Sunday to flash three fingers in the air, a sign of resistance borrowed from The Hunger Games movies.
In Yangon, supporters have been hanging red clothing, ribbons and balloons outside their homes, and in the evenings they’ve been banging pots and pans from their balconies – a practice traditionally done to drive evil spirits from homes.
Josh said the biggest police station had been boarded up, and Facebook, which is used by half the population, was shut down on Friday.
“I think that’s more to create uncertainty, to put fear into the people,” Josh said.
It’s almost like psychological warfare. They’ve put the fear of themselves into people. That’s what they’re trying to achieve.”
A quiet coup
Aside from the pots and pans, the coup has been a quiet one – with some extraordinary moments.
In footage that went viral an aerobics teacher, Khing Hnin Wai, filmed herself working out outside Myanmar’s parliament as she did most mornings.
As she busted out her morning moves, unbeknownst to her, vehicles rolled in behind her to take over the country.
“Before I heard the news [of the coup] in the morning, the video I made for the aerobic dance competition has become an unforgettable memory,” she posted on Facebook afterwards.
One foreigner living in Myanmar, who we’ll call “Jane”, said it was all over by the time she came back from her morning run.
“On Monday morning I went for a run at 6.30am in the morning, I saw a bunch of people in the street, I thought that’s business as usual,” Jane told The New Daily.
When she passed a grocery store she witnessed people stocking up on food, but she didn’t think much of it – until she got home and her landlord told her there had been a coup.
“Then we realised phone lines had been cut off. We still had some internet but a lot of people who didn’t have the luxury of WiFi couldn’t text or call,” Jane said.
People are increasingly worried things will turn violent.
“I think over the next couple of days, the people are safe. But I think the tension is ratcheting up,” Jane said.
The army has a history of using deadly violence against protestors and silencing all opposition. Jane says that’s at the forefront of everyone’s mind.
“It’s not a distant memory for people. They are worried the military could do these things again. There’s no reason why they wouldn’t,” she said.
Another foreigner, “Roger”, said that with every passing day the outrage grows.
“In the last five-year term of the NLD government … a wave of freedom from fear and hope of a better future had spread,” he said.
“They now feel betrayed and cheated by the military.”
Roger said the presence of expatriates in Myanmar was helping keep the citizens safe.
“There have been several messages on social media asking us to not to leave. The Myanmar people fear what will happen when there are no foreign witnesses,” he said.
“Our presence helps to protect them.”
Roger wasn’t worried about his own safety – but he can’t say that of of his friends, some of whom have disappeared in the last few days.
“There is a long way to go in this struggle. It is only just beginning – we all know how bad these things have gone in the past,” he said.