Myanmar regime arrests former UK ambassador

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Myanmar’s military regime has arrested a former UK ambassador to the country and her artist husband, according to two people familiar with the situation.

News of the arrests emerged on Thursday, the fifth anniversary of Myanmar’s violent crackdown on the Muslim Rohingya minority, a campaign that has drawn accusations of genocide.

Vicky Bowman, the UK’s envoy to Myanmar from 2002 to 2006, and her husband, artist and former political prisoner Htein Lin, were arrested on Wednesday by the military regime, which seized power in a coup against Aung San Suu Kyi’s government in February last year.

The two were taken to Yangon’s Insein prison, said the people familiar with the situation. Independent news website Myanmar Now said both were charged with violating the Immigration Act and faced potential prison sentences of six months to five years.

“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,” said the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.

The Foreign Office also announced on Thursday that the UK would “intervene” in a case filed by Gambia at the International Court of Justice in The Hague in 2019 accusing the Myanmar military of genocidal acts against the Rohingya.

The UK also unveiled sanctions against military-linked companies, including one controlled by a son of coup leader General Min Aung Hlaing.

Bowman is the director of the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business, a non-governmental organisation that advises local enterprises on anti-corruption, social and environmental practices. She also previously worked with miner Rio Tinto on transparency and sustainability issues.

MCRB said in on Friday that it was working to secure the immediate release of Bowman and Htein Lin.

The UK’s current envoy to Myanmar, Pete Vowles, was expelled from the country last month. Vowles, who was appointed ambassador last year but had declined to present his credentials to the military junta, had downgraded his title to charge d’affaires ad interim.

Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, launched a violent crackdown five years ago against the Muslim Rohingya minority in the western Rakhine state.

At least 10,000 Rohingya were killed and 730,000 displaced into neighbouring Bangladesh in 2017, according to a UN fact-finding mission that concluded the Tatmadaw’s months-long assault amounted to “both war crimes and crimes against humanity”.

“The UK has been clear that what happened to the Rohingya was ethnic cleansing and remains committed to taking action to stop the brutality of the Myanmar Armed Forces and hold them to account,” said the Foreign Office.

Burma Campaign UK, an advocacy group, said the UK’s involvement in the case would “bring vital additional resources and expertise, as well as sending an important political message”.

“For decades, the Burmese military have been allowed to violate international law without consequences, encouraging them to commit genocide and attempt another coup,” said Anna Roberts, the group’s executive director.

Last month, the ICJ ruled that the case could proceed, quashing Myanmar’s objections over its jurisdiction. A separate case has been opened against the Tatmadaw in Argentina.

Htein Lin, a Burmese national, took part in the 1988 student-led uprising against a former military regime and was previously imprisoned from 1998-2004.

More than 15,000 people have been arrested and more than 2,200 killed by the military in the wake of last year’s coup, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a local advocacy group.

Sean Turnell, an Australian academic, economist and former adviser to Aung San Suu Kyi, also remains in detention in Myanmar. He was arrested in the wake of the 2021 coup and faces charges under the Official Secrets Act as well as for immigration offences.

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