Myanmar’s military junta has detained Britain’s former ambassador to the country, as well as her husband, a prominent artist, in Yangon.
Vicky Bowman and Htein Lin, a renowned painter and former political prisoner, were arrested in Yangon on Wednesday and charged with immigration offences, Reuters reports. They were taken to Insein prison, a notorious facility where many political prisoners are held.
Local media reported that Htein Lin was seen handcuffed in the back of a police car as he was brought to a court in Yangon on Thursday morning.
In a statement, the junta said the pair had violated immigration regulations because they had stayed at an address other than that registered with authorities.
Breaching immigration rules can lead to a jail sentence of between six months and five years, or a fine, or both.
The arrests came as the UK unveiled further sanctions targeting military-linked companies. In an announcement on the fifth anniversary of the military’s brutal crackdown on the country’s Rohingya minority, the UK also said it would intervene in a genocide case filed by the Gambia against Myanmar at the international court of justice in 2019.
Myanmar’s military’s relations with western countries, including the UK, have deteriorated dramatically since it seized power in a coup last year, halting the country’s democratic transition.
In July, the UK’s envoy, Pete Vowles, was expelled from the country after he refused to present his credentials to the junta, and the UK downgraded his title to chargé d’affaires ad interim. Vowles said at the time that he did not want “to legitimise their brutal coup”.
Hunter Marston, a researcher and analyst at the Australian National University in Canberra, said the arrests were “a signal that they really have no limits to who they’re going to target”.
“The junta’s relationship with western countries has deteriorated significantly, if not completely dried up. But at the same time, countries like India and Japan, a little bit, as well as Russia and China, of course, have been far more willing to embrace or work with the junta out of some form of realpolitik,” he said.
Bowman, who served as the UK ambassador to Myanmar from 2002 to 2006, leads the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business (MCRB). When appointed to the role she was described as one of the “pre-eminent experts on Myanmar”. She said the role brought together her “two professional and personal passions”: Myanmar and responsible business.
A graduate of natural sciences (pathology) from the University of Cambridge and Burmese studies at Soas University of London, and fluent in the country’s language, Bowman began her diplomatic career in 1990 working as second secretary at the embassy in the south-east Asian country from 1990 to 1993.
She also held roles in Brussels under the former European commissioner Chris Patten and as director of global and economic issues at the UK Foreign Office.
Bowman’s husband, Htein Lin, is a veteran activist who spent more than six years in jail after he was arrested in 1998 under the military of the time. In prison he secretly continued to paint, completing more than 1,000 works while carrying out his sentence.
“It took me a year to start painting properly in prison. I had to befriend a prison guard, who would bring me colour but no brushes. I had to find other things to paint with,” Lin said in 2008. “In my cell I put on an exhibition for the 30 other political prisoners. I had to pay the guard to let me do it and he gave me two hours.”
The pair have a 14-year-old daughter.
According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, an organisation tracking rights violations, more than 12,000 people are being held in detention in Myanmar.
Sean Turnell, an Australian economic adviser to Aung San Suu Kyi, and Toru Kubot, a Japanese film-maker, are among other foreign nationals held.
The arrests of Bowman and Htein Lin were likely planned by the military for some time, said Mark Farmaner, the director of Burma Campaign UK, an NGO advocating for human rights and democracy in the country.
“The military feel themselves to be kind of under threat in a way that they’ve never felt before, and they are lashing out and arresting and killing anyone that they think is a danger to them,” said Farmaner, who has known Bowman for nearly 20 years.
A UK Foreign Office 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 Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB), a thinktank where Bowman serves on the international advisory council, has called for the couple’s immediate release. “We are working to try to secure this,” it said in a statement.