Junta authorities have arrested former U.K. Ambassador to Myanmar Vicky Bowman and her husband, a Burmese former political prisoner, for allegedly violating the country’s immigration laws, according to the military regime and a source with close ties to the couple.
Bowman, who served as the U.K.’s top diplomat to Myanmar for four years ending in 2006, and her husband, artist Htein Lin, were taken into custody from their home in Yangon’s Dagon township at around 10 p.m. on Wednesday and initially held at an area police station, a person close to their family told RFA Burmese.
The pair were transferred to Yangon’s notorious Insein Prison on Thursday afternoon and will be held there pending a court hearing scheduled for Sept. 6, the family friend said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
According to a statement by the junta, Bowman had obtained a residence permit to stay in Yangon, where she runs the nonprofit organization Myanmar Center for Responsible Business, but relocated to her husband’s home in Shan state’s Kalaw township between May 4, 2021, and Aug. 9, 2022, without informing authorities of her change in address. Htein Lin abetted her by failing to report the move, the statement said. They face up to five years in prison.
The source close to Bowman’s family told RFA that she and her husband had “not violated any laws,” as alleged by authorities.
The arrests came as the U.K. announced new sanctions against “military-linked companies” that it said was part of a bid to “target the military’s access to arms and revenue” amid a crackdown by the junta on opponents to its rule.
The British Embassy in Myanmar confirmed the arrests to RFA by email and said it is providing the pair with consular assistance.
Calls for release
Rights groups on Thursday called on the junta to drop the charges against Bowman and Htein Lin, a former activist with the All Burma Students Democratic Front who spent more than six years in prison between 1998 and 2004 for speaking out against military rule.
Phil Robertson, Asia deputy director for New York-based Human Rights Watch, slammed the decision to arrest the couple as an “absurd, ridiculous & vengeful action” in a post to his Twitter account and called for their immediate and unconditional release.
“[Junta chief] Gen. Min Aung Hlaing & #Tatmadaw just making things up to strike back at critics any way they can,” Robertson wrote.
The arrests also drew condemnation in a statement from PEN America, an NGO that campaigns for writers’ freedom of expression.
“The arbitrary and sudden arrests of Vicky Bowman and Htein Lin are yet more examples of the sweeping and abusive power that the military junta has wielded since its violent and illegal seizure of power in February 2021,” said Julie Trébault, director of the Artists at Risk Connection at PEN America.
“We are deeply concerned for the safety of Vicky Bowman and Htein Lin and call for their immediate release.”
Friends of Bowman and Htein Lin told RFA they believe the junta had fabricated charges against the couple as a form of “revenge” for Htein Lin’s activism and the fresh U.K. sanctions.
Artist Zaw Gyi said Bowman was within her rights to stay at her husband’s home, which should be seen as part of the couple’s collective assets.
“This is just an example of trying to find fault to cause a problem,” he said. “How could Htein Lin stay out of this when his wife is being arrested?”
Writer Wai Hmuu Thwin called the arrests “a case of tit for tat by the junta.”
“[In other countries] if you enter through immigration legally, there are no problems, regardless of where you stay,” he said.
“I see this as a form of revenge because the British government announced sanctions … recently. Since Vicky Bowman was a former British ambassador, she and her husband got caught in the middle.”
Authorities in Myanmar have killed nearly 2,250 civilians and arrested more than 15,200 others since the Feb. 1, 2021, coup, mostly during peaceful anti-junta protests, according to Thailand’s Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.
Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.