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Myanmar authorities have arrested Britain’s former ambassador to the country and her husband, a prominent artist and one-time political prisoner, for allegedly violating immigration laws, the junta said on Thursday.

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Vicky Bowman, who served as Britain‘s ambassador to Myanmar from 2002 to 2006, was detained for failing to declare she was living at an address different from the one listed on her foreigner’s registration certificate, a junta statement said.

Bowman and her husband Htein Lin were being investigated under the Immigration Act for staying at a different address than her official registration specified, after moving to a different town.

“It is found that Vicky Bowman violated the immigration act 13/1,” said the statement circulated to journalists. The law carries a sentence of six months to five years of prison time.

“Htein Lin knew that his wife moved to Kalaw and stayed there, he facilitated the violations without informing the authorities. Therefore, he was charged under section 13/1.”

A spokesperson for the British embassy in Yangon 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,” they said.

A source with knowledge of the matter said Bowman and Htein Lin had been taken to Yangon’s Insein prison. 

A hearing had been set for September 6, although it was not known what would take place then, the source added.

Breaching immigration law carries a maximum of five years in prison.

Coup, Rohingya case sours UK-Myanmar relations

The arrest comes as Britain announces that it is imposing fresh sanctions to target military-linked businesses in Myanmar and joining the case against Myanmar in the International Court of Justice.

Britain is the fourth country after the Maldives, Netherlands and Canada, to vow formal support for the case brought by the Gambia against Myanmar to determine whether its military conducted genocidal operations against Rohingya Muslims in 2016 and 2017.

Three companies are being penalised with sanctions “in an effort to limit the military’s access to arms and revenue”, the British government said in a statement on Wednesday.

Ties between Myanmar and former colonial ruler Britain soured after a 2021 military coup, with the junta this year criticising the UK’s recent downgrading of its mission in the country as “unacceptable”.

Prior to serving as ambassador, Bowman was the second secretary in the British embassy from 1990 to 1993. 

A fluent Burmese speaker, Bowman currently works as director at the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business, a joint initiative with the Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB).

Juggling junta with ‘enemy of the state’ partner

Bowman’s husband Htein Lin is a prominent activist who took part in a 1988 student uprising against a former junta, and later spent years underground. 

He was arrested in 1998 and imprisoned for allegedly opposing junta rule.

After he was freed in 2004, he came to the attention of then-ambassador Bowman for a series of paintings he completed in jail using smuggled materials.

She persuaded him to let her take the politically sensitive artwork of his life behind bars for his own security.

He later proposed to her during a holiday in Britain by creating a message in the sand on a beach, and the pair married in 2006.

In 2017 Bowman gave a TEDx talk about their courtship and juggling her role as envoy to the junta “when your lover is potentially an enemy of the state”.

‘Provocative step’

The arrest of the prominent couple has shocked Myanmar experts who say it is a sign of the junta’s hardening line on the West.    

“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.”

Scores of foreign nationals have been caught up in the junta’s crackdown following its takeover.

Japanese filmmaker Toru Kubota is being held in Insein prison after he was detained last month near an anti-government rally in Yangon.

He is the fifth foreign journalist to be held in Myanmar, after US citizens Nathan Maung and Danny Fenster, Robert Bociaga of Poland and Yuki Kitazumi of Japan – all of whom were later freed and deported.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and Reuters)

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