Myanmar junta detains former UK ambassador

Vicky Bowman and Burmese husband accused of immigration law violations

Vicky Bowman is accused of registering one address but living at another one. (Photo courtesy of Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business)

Authorities in Myanmar have detained Britain’s former ambassador to the country for an alleged offence under the immigration law.

Vicky Bowman, who runs the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business, and her husband, a Burmese artist, were detained on Wednesday, sources told Reuters earlier.

The junta released a statement on Thursday evening saying that the couple had violated the law by registering one address as their residence but living somewhere else.

Ms Bowman’s husband Htein Lin, 55, is one of Myanmar’s most famous artists and a veteran activist who spent 6 1/2 years, between 1998 and 2004, in prison for his opposition to an earlier junta.

A source said the couple had been remanded in custody and were being sent to Insein prison, the notorious jail on the outskirts of the commercial capital of Yangon where many political prisoners are held.

Ms Bowman has been the director of the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business since July 2013, according to the centre’s website.

She served as ambassador of the UK to Myanmar from 2002-06 and as second secretary in the embassy from 1990-93. She has also worked in Brussels as Member of Cabinet of European Commissioner Chris Patten (1999-2002) and as press spokeswoman for the UK representation to the EU (1996-99), the website says.

Ms Bowman and her husband, who met while she was serving as the ambassador, left Myanmar in 2006 but returned a decade ago. They have a 14-year-old daughter.

A British embassy spokesperson said: “We are concerned by the arrest of a British woman in Myanmar. We are in contact with the local authorities and are providing consular assistance.” 

The spokesperson did not name the individual.

The statement released by the junta on Thursday evening said of Ms Bowman: “It was verified that she committed a crime under Section 13 (1) of the Immigration Act by failing to apply for a change of address on the foreigner registration certificate when moving house. U Htin Lin was found to have committed a violation of Section 13 (5) of the Myanmar Immigration Law because he knew and encouraged his wife to move to his home address, contrary to the existing law.”

A hearing has been set for Sept 6.

Mark Farmaner, director of the human rights group Burma Campaign UK, called Bowman’s detention “shocking and surprising news”.

“Vicky is no friend of the Burmese military, but she has been careful not to make public comments attacking the military,” he said. “She has opposed some of the sanctions on the military in the past. It’s unclear why the military is targeting Vicky now.

“If this is hostage diplomacy, the British government must not allow it to succeed. These arrests are an example of why more pressure is needed, not less,” he added.

On Thursday morning, hours after Ms Bowman’s arrest, Britain announced that it was imposing new economic sanctions against companies linked to the Myanmar military, including Sky One Construction Company Ltd, which is owned by Aung Pyae Sone, the son of the junta leader, Senior Gen Min Aung Hlaing.

Britain said the sanctions were aimed at limiting the regime’s access to arms and revenue.

The timing of the arrests appeared to be coincidental.

Britain also announced that it would seek to intervene in a case brought by Gambia at the International Court of Justice accusing Myanmar of violating the UN Genocide Convention for atrocities committed against Rohingya Muslims in 2017.

“The UK will always face down those who seek to undermine and destroy our values of freedom and democracy,” Amanda Milling, the minister of state for Asia, said in announcing the new measures.