Myanmar’s military authorities have detained the United Kingdom’s former ambassador to the country, and her husband, over alleged violations of immigration law.
Vicky Bowman, who currently runs the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business (MCRB), and her husband, Htein Lin, a Burmese artist and former political prisoner, were reportedly detained on Wednesday in Yangon, sources told the Reuters and AFP news agencies.
Myanmar’s military, which seized power from the elected government in February 2021, issued a statement on Thursday confirming that Bowman was under investigation for failing to declare she was living at an address different from the one listed on her foreigner’s registration certificate.
Htein Lin is under investigation for helping his wife reside at an address different to their registered home in Yangon, the statement added.
Bowman, 56, served as ambassador to Myanmar from 2002 to 2006 and has more than 30 years of experience in the country.
Htein Lin, 55, is one of Myanmar’s most famous artists and a veteran activist who spent more than six years – between 1998 and 2004 – in prison for his opposition to an earlier period of military rule.
A spokesperson for the UK’s embassy in the country said they were “concerned by the arrest of a British woman in Myanmar”, without mentioning Bowman by name.
“We are in contact with the local authorities and are providing consular assistance,” the spokesperson said.
Breaching immigration law carries a maximum of five years in prison in Myanmar.
Reports of Bowman’s arrest came as the UK announced on Thursday that it was imposing a new round of sanctions in support of the Southeast Asian country’s Rohingya community, targeting military-linked businesses in Myanmar in an effort to limit the military’s access to arms and revenue.
“We continue to stand in solidarity with the Rohingya people and condemn the Myanmar Armed Forces’ horrific campaign of ethnic cleansing,” Amanda Milling, the UK government’s Asia minister, said in a statement.
Al Jazeera’s Tony Cheng, reporting from Bangkok, said there had seemingly been an attempt by “people close” to Bowman to try and keep news of her detention “out of the media’s hands” at first.
“There were strong attempts made to try and clear this up quickly. There was a belief, I think initially, that this might have been a misunderstanding. But the fact that this news has been released, I think, is an indication that she is going to face serious charges,” said Cheng, who has reported extensively on Myanmar.
“There has been no confirmation of where she is being held, although I think the assumption is now is that she is probably in Insein Prison, the largest prison in Yangon, where the most high-profile prisoners are detained,” Cheng said.
Myanmar has been in political and economic chaos since last year’s coup. The military’s seizure of power from Aung San Suu Kyi’s government led to peaceful protests that escalated to armed resistance amid a brutal military crackdown. The country is now in a situation that some UN experts have characterised as a civil war.
“This is a provocative step for the regime to take,” Richard Horsey of the International Crisis Group told AFP.
“Vicky and Htein Lin are hugely respected and have contributed so much to Myanmar over the decades. The fact that Vicky is the former British ambassador adds further gravity to this case,” he said.
Since the coup took place in 2021, more than 15,000 people have been arrested, and more 12,000 remain in detention, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), a non-governmental organisation that tracks killing and arrests. The generals claim that figure is exaggerated.
Al Jazeera’s Cheng described the couple’s arrest and other recent developments in Myanmar – including the execution of four political prisoners in July and a bitter row with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) bloc – as a “very disturbing escalation” of the situation there.
“I think what we are seeing is the military junta pushing back very hard on any suggestion that they are going to negotiate for peace in their country and that they really don’t care about international opinion at this stage,” Cheng said.