ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

Myanmar Junta Sentences Former Ambassador to 1 Year in Prison

Vicky Bowman has been accused of violating a minor immigration regulation, but the true motivations of her arrest are clearly political.

Myanmar Junta Sentences Former Ambassador to 1 Year in Prison
Credit: Depositphotos

The military administration in Myanmar has sentenced a former British ambassador to a year in prison after finding her guilty of breaching immigration regulations. Vicky Bowman, who now heads a business advisory group, was arrested late last month in Yangon along with her husband Htein Lin, an artist and former political prisoner.

According to a report in The Irrawaddy, which cited sources inside Yangon’s Insein Prison, a court in the prison held a summary hearing for the couple on August 29 and made the verdict on Friday. Their court hearing was originally set for September 6, but the paper said it was unclear why the date was changed.

The pair became the latest of the more than 15,000 people to have been arrested since the military coup of February 2021, which has tipped the country into turmoil and inflamed its spot-fire conflicts into a nationwide conflagration.

Bowman was charged under the country’s Immigration Act and the Foreigners Registration Rules for “staying in a family home in Kalaw Township, Shan State, rather than living at the Yangon address where she has originally registered with the authorities.” Htein Lin was charged for failing to report his wife’s change of address.

The exact charges are beside the point, of course. Such small immigration violations are rarely prosecuted, and the arrests of Bowman and Htein Lin can only be explained in political terms, even if the precise motivations are opaque.

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The most obvious explanation is the U.K.’s concurrent announcement of a fresh round of sanctions on the military administration, timed to the fifth anniversary of the vicious military assaults on the Rohingya communities of northern Rakhine state in Myanmar’s west. This “clearance operation” ultimately pushed some 740,000 civilians to flee across the border into Bangladesh, where they remain, confined to large refugee camps around the town of Cox’s Bazar. London also announced that it would throw its weight behind the ongoing genocide case at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, which The Gambia brought against Myanmar in 2018.

More broadly, the arrests come amid a period of diplomatic tension between Naypyidaw and London, after the Myanmar military government expelled Pete Vowles, the U.K.’s designated envoy, from the country in July. The junta was apparently angered by the U.K.’s decision to downgrade his title from ambassador to charge d’affaires ad interim in protest at the military takeover.

Bowman, a fluent speaker of Burmese, was the second secretary at the U.K. embassy from 1990 to 1993 and then returned as ambassador from 2002-2006. As head of the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business, she helped guide potential foreign investors into Myanmar’s market in the 2010s, during its phase of limited opening to the West. The fact that she had dedicated her life to the country and contributed greatly to its economic betterment, and was still targeted by the military, suggests that no foreign resident of Myanmar is safe from arbitrary and politically motivated arrest.

Indeed, those foreigners with the most intimate ties to the country, particularly those who stayed on after the coup rather than leaving the country, seem in many ways the most vulnerable to being taken hostage in the service of the junta’s narrow political vision.