Junta charges detained former UK ambassador and husband under immigration act

The Myanmar junta arrested Vicky Bowman, former British ambassador to Myanmar, and her Burmese husband, renowned artist Htein Lin, on Wednesday night and charged them with violating the Immigration Act, punishable by up to five years in prison. 

The pair were taken from their home in Yangon’s Sanchaung Township and immediately sent to Insein Prison, according to a source close to the family. They were brought to the township court on Thursday morning, where Bowman, who is a UK citizen, was charged with violating Article 13(1) of Myanmar’s immigration law.

If convicted, the statute carries a prison sentence of six months to five years for overstaying or breaking the terms of a visa, or illegal entry to Myanmar.

Htein Lin, whose hands were reportedly bound with a long iron chain when he appeared at the court, was charged under Article 13(5) of the same law for facilitating Bowman’s alleged violation. He potentially faces the same prison sentence.

The junta released a statement on Thursday evening accusing the couple of “failing to report a change of address.” It said that Htein Lin and Bowman had stayed at a home in Kalaw, Shan State registered to Htein Lin from May 2021 until August 9 this year, despite Bowman being listed through her visa as living at Pan Hlaing Residence in Sanchaung, Yangon.

Bowman served as British ambassador to the country from 2002 to 2006. Prior to the appointment, she was the embassy’s second secretary from 1990 until 1993. 

Bowman has been the director of the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business since 2013, an initiative promoting responsible practices among commercial enterprises in the country. 

Htein Lin is a well-known painter, performance artist, and former political prisoner who was a member of the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front, an armed resistance force formed in the wake of the 8-8-88 popular uprising. He was incarcerated from 1998 until 2004 by the military regime in power at that time. His art frequently depicts the gruesome torture he faced in prison and as a victim of internal fighting within the rebel group to which he once belonged.

He later married Bowman and moved to London until they returned to Yangon in 2013.

The couple had been spending much of their time in Shan State since 2020. 

They were reportedly recovering from recent Covid-19 infections at the time of their arrest.  

The criminal charges levied against the former British ambassador comes amid ongoing diplomatic tension between Myanmar and the UK.

On Wednesday, the UK added three companies to their Myanmar sanctions list: International Gateways Group of Companies, Sky One Construction Company and Sapphire Group of Companies. 

The Myanmar military regime expelled the head of the UK embassy, Pete Vowles, from the country in July. Vowles was appointed ambassador one year earlier but he had not presented his required credentials to the military council despite requests to do so by the junta.

Nikkei Asia reported that the UK downgraded his title to chargé d’affaires in response to the deteriorating situation in Myanmar. The junta refused to accept the appointment and called on the UK government to send a replacement. 

Vowles has been outspoken regarding the coup regime’s atrocities and Myanmar people’s resistance movement to military rule. He was stranded in Thailand for several months earlier this year as the military refused to issue him a visa to re-enter Myanmar. He was later permitted to return to the country but tweeted on July 13 that he had been made to exit.

“My time in Myanmar comes to an abrupt end today. Sad & sorry to have been forced by the junta to leave but glad we didn’t cave to pressure to legitimise their brutal coup,” Vowles wrote at the time.

Editor’s Note: This article was updated on the evening of August 25 to include information from the junta’s statement on the arrests.

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