Vicky Bowman, former U.K. ambassador to Myanmar and director of the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business (right), signs a partnership agreement with the Business Coalition on Gender Equality in Yangon, Myanmar, February 27, 2020.
Myanmar’s military junta has arrested a former British ambassador to the country for violating the country’s immigration laws, a day before the U.K. government announced a new round of sanctions on the coup government.
According to a report from Myanmar Now, Vicky Bowman, who served as London’s envoy from 2002-2006 and now heads a business advisory group, was arrested on Wednesday night in Yangon along with her Burmese husband, the prominent artist Htein Lin. Both were sent to the city’s Insein Prison.
The Associated Press cited a junta statement as saying that Bowman has been charged under the country’s Immigration Act and the Foreigners Registration Rules for failing to inform the authorities last year when she and her husband moved temporarily from their registered address in Yangon to Kalaw township in Shan State. Failure to change the address on her official residence permit registration card carries a punishment of six months to five years imprisonment.
Htein Lin, a former political prisoner and member of the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front, a resistance group formed in the wake of the country’s 1988 pro-democracy uprising, has been charged with abetting his wife’s failure to register her change of address, along with a second charge similar to Bowman’s.
As director of the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business, Bowman has spent nearly a decade helping potential foreign investors negotiate the thorny ethical challenges of investing in Myanmar during the country’s decade of economic opening in the 2010s. In a statement, the group confirmed the arrest of Bowman and Htein Lin, called for their “immediate release,” and said that it was “working to try to secure this.”
The arrests coincided with the U.K.’s announcement of a fresh round of sanctions on the military administration. In a statement announcing the sanctions yesterday, the government stated that it was targeting a number of military-linked businesses “in an effort to limit the military’s access to arms and revenue.” Those listed were the Star Sapphire Group of Companies, the International Gateways Group of Companies Limited, and Sky One Construction Company Ltd.
The new sanctions were timed to the fifth anniversary of the Myanmar military’s brutal, and allegedly genocidal, assaults on the Rohingya communities of Rakhine State, which drove more than 700,000 civilians over the border into Bangladesh. In the statement, Minister for Asia Amanda Milling also announced that London would throw its support behind the ongoing genocide case at the International Court of Justice, which The Gambia brought against Myanmar in 2018.
“Our decision to intervene in The Gambia v. Myanmar case and a further round of sanctions sends a strong signal of our continued support to seek accountability for the atrocities in 2017 and also restrict the military junta’s access to finance and the supply of arms,” the statement quoted Milling as saying.
Whether the detention of Bowman and her husband has anything to do with the U.K. sanctions announcement is unclear, given that the arrests took place a day prior to London’s announcement. But it is hard to imagine that the arrests are unconnected to the current state of tension in the relationship between Myanmar’s junta and the U.K. government.
Last month, Pete Vowles, the U.K.’s designated envoy to Myanmar, announced that he had been effectively expelled from the country by the junta. “My time in Myanmar comes to an abrupt end today,” Vowles wrote on Twitter on July 13. “Sad & sorry to have been forced by the junta to leave but glad we didn’t cave to pressure to legitimize their brutal coup.”
Vowles was appointed ambassador in July 2021, but London subsequently chose to downgrade his title to charge d’affaires ad interim in reaction to the deteriorating political situation in the country. This provoked an angry reaction from the military administration, which barred Vowles from entering Myanmar for four months and demanded that he be replaced by an alternative candidate.
Whatever its connection to broader diplomatic tensions, Bowman’s arrest is an alarming sign that prominent foreign nationals resident in Myanmar can no longer assume to be immune from political persecution by the military junta.
The experience of Sean Turnell, an Australian economics professor who was serving as an economic advisor to Aung San Suu Kyi and her civilian administration prior to the coup, serves as a cautionary tale. He was arrested shortly after the military takeover and remains in custody more than 18 months later.