Vicky Bowman’s arrest in Myanmar is ‘hostage diplomacy’, activists say


Myanmar’s military’s recent arrest of a former British ambassador is an example of “hostage diplomacy”, say opposition activists and politicians. The ex-diplomat’s detention came as Britain attempted to further isolate the regime in Southeast Asia.

Vicky Bowman, who served as Britain’s ambassador to Myanmar from 2002 to 2006, was arrested at her Yangon flat on Wednesday evening with her husband, Htein Lin, a renowned Burmese artist. They join the 15,000 and over people arrested by the military junta since it seized power in a coup in February 2021, the Association for Assistance to Political Prisoners said, a non-profit organization who hunts down those persecuted by the regime. The figures include at least three other foreigners.

Activists say the detention of Bowman, who is accused of having stayed at a different address than the residence she officially registered, reflects the military’s growing impunity. The junta has brutally crushed opposition over the past year and defied international calls last month by executing four pro-democracy leaders. Many also see the arrest as an attempt to pressure foreign governments into not undermining the regime, including with tougher penalties.

Other foreigners known to be in custody include Sean Turnell, an Australian economist and longtime adviser to Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who was arrested days after the 2021 coup. and Toru Kubota, a Japanese documentary filmmaker who was taken into custody. this month while covering a protest in Yangon.

Danny Fenster, an American journalist who worked in Myanmar, spent more than five months in prison last year before being pardoned. The US Embassy in Yangon said last month that another American was “wrongfully detained” in the country.

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“They are trying to create a hostage situation, a kind of hostage diplomacy,” said Moe Zaw Oo, deputy foreign minister of the National Unity Government (NUG) – an administration in exile that enjoys a significant popular support. He said the junta was borrowing from the playbook of other authoritarian regimes, including Russia, which continues to detain Americans, including WNBA player Brittney Griner, whom the US State Department considers wrongfully detained.

“The ransom in this case is a kind of political advantage,” Moe Zaw Oo added of Bowman’s arrest.

Myanmar’s military, also known as the Tatmadaw, has been brutal in its recent crackdown on opposition forces. He used tactics honed over decades of repression of ethnic minorities, including the razing of villages and the use of human shields. Faced with multiple insurgencies and the threat of further isolation from the international community, the junta is seeking new methods of intimidation, observers say.

Military leaders are “fighting for survival”, said Mark Farmaner, director of the pro-democracy group Burma Campaign UK, which uses a different name for the country. “They’re not playing the same international diplomatic games they played when they were in charge before.”

Zachary Abuza, a professor at the National War College in Washington who studies security issues in Southeast Asia, said the arrests would likely prompt foreign governments to prioritize the safe release of their citizens. That could weaken — or delay — a “more principled response” to the junta, he said.

Australia has reluctant to impose severe penalties on Myanmar since the coup, lagging behind other Western powers, he noted. Foreign Secretary Penny Wong said in June that Australia is considering further sanctions, but stressed that securing Turnell’s release is the country’s “first priority”.

Days before Bowman’s arrest, Britain announced it would join other countries in a case before the International Court of Justice alleging that Myanmar’s military committed genocide against the Rohingya Muslim minority. . London also said it would impose new penaltiesincluding against Sky One Construction Company, which has ties to the son of junta leader General Min Aung Hlaing.

There is no immediate evidence that the arrest and punishments were linked, but activists say the message sent to foreign governments is clear.

“It’s a challenge not just for the Burmese people but for the world,” said a Burmese journalist in the UK, a longtime friend of Bowman and Htein Lin. “The message is: no one is safe.”

The reporter, who spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons, said the arrests of Bowman, 56, and Htein Lin, 55, came as a surprise to their friends.

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The couple were well known in many circles – Bowman is fluent in the country’s dominant language and has lived there for over 30 years; Htein Lin had been a student activist in the 1980s and 1990s – and their dramatic romance attracted international attention.

But in recent years, they had led a relatively “low-key” life, the reporter said. Bowman was most recently the director of the Myanmar Center for Responsible Business, a Yangon-based initiative, and was not a vocal critic of the junta.

In a interview with local media Frontier Myanmar this year, Bowman advised companies against getting close to the military. “Our advice is that you should continue to obey the law,” she said. “However, we do not encourage companies to hold their heads above the parapet and have a ceremonial and groundbreaking relationship with the government.”

While she was also not a regime supporter, Bowman had contacts in the military, two of her friends said. This gave her some assurance that she could live safely in the country with her husband and 14-year-old daughter, even after the coup.

When the pandemic hit, Bowman and her family moved from Yangon to a house Htein Lin owned in Kalaw, a hilltop town in central Myanmar. A junta spokesperson said Thursday that Bowman was accused of living at an address she had not registered. Her husband, the official said, was charged “because he knew and encouraged his wife to move into his home, contrary to applicable law.”

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