Yangon/Taipei – Former British ambassador to Myanmar, Vicky Bowman, and her husband, Htein Lin, have been sentenced to one year in prison for immigration offences following a trial in Yangon, a diplomat with knowledge of the matter said.
Bowman and her husband Htein Lin, a renowned Myanmar painter and former political prisoner, were sentenced on Friday following their arrest in Yangon last week for alleged immigration offences.
A memo from Myanmar’s military rulers accused Bowman of violating the country’s immigration act and foreigners’ registration rules for failing to inform the authorities last year when the couple moved temporarily from their registered address in Yangon to Kalaw in Shan State.
Htein Lin has been charged with abetting the “crime”.
Local news site Myanmar Now reported that the couple appeared at a court inside the notorious Insein prison on Thursday for their hearing, and were sentenced on Friday.
The arrest and now imprisonment of Bowman, the most prominent advocate of responsible investment in Myanmar and who has years of experience living in the country, and Htein Lin, have sent shockwaves across the business and diplomatic communities.
Speculation over the reason for their arrest vary, with some suggesting Bowman’s independent advocacy work has caught the eyes of the military regime.
Some diplomats and analysts, however, see the couple’s imprisonment as akin to taking hostages that can be traded in future talks.
“This is hostage ‘diplomacy’”, former EU ambassador to Myanmar Kristian Schmidt wrote on social media following news of the couple’s arrest.
— Kristian Schmidt (@EUAmbSchmidt) August 25, 2022
Al Jazeera’s Tony Cheng, reporting from Bangkok, said the concern now is that Bowman and her husband will be used as a form of leverage by Myanmar’s military rulers.
“The concern is for many people who know her, her friends and relatives inside Yangon and outside, that she will become a pawn for the military to use as they have used other foreigners they have detained since the military coup,” Cheng said.
“Possibly in part because the British government put more sanctions in place against businesses related to Myanmar’s military junta last week, and that may become part of the equation in getting her liberty. But at the moment, as far as we understand, she will be retained at Insein jail for another year.”
Friends also worry that Htein Lin, 55, is at higher risk of suffering in jail under the military, which is known to torture prisoners. Htein Lin was a student protester during the 1988 uprising against the then-military government, and he spent more than six years in prison between 1998 and 2004.
The pair’s jailing also potentially represents a massive test for the United Kingdom government.
Britain was criticised domestically for not acting swiftly in the case of Iran’s jailing of British-Iranian national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who spent six years in prison in Iran before being released earlier this year.
“This goes far beyond a private consular case,” a European diplomat formerly based in Yangon told Al Jazeera.
Bowman is one of the main interfaces between Myanmar and foreign investors, advocating responsible business and playing a pivotal role in steering economic development, the diplomat said.
“All eyes are now on the UK government to do all they can to get her and Htein Lin freed as soon as possible,” he added.
“It certainly suggests the possibility of ‘hostage diplomacy’. It also highlights the junta’s extreme paranoia and its utter cluelessness – or indifference – to the impact its actions have on the economy,” said Scot Marciel, a former US ambassador to Burma. “They seem to see enemies everywhere.”
Formerly the UK ambassador to Myanmar from 2002 to 2006, Bowman, 56, returned to Yangon and has spent nearly a decade reforming the private sector and related government regulations in a way that respects human rights and international standards during the country’s decade of economic opening in the 2010s. She speaks fluent Burmese.
One Asian diplomat said in Yangon that there are several possible reasons for the arrests, and timing, such as the UK’s refusal to accept the military’s new ambassadorial appointee in London, the latest sanctions on the regime, and London’s decision to support the Rohingya’s crimes against humanity case at the International Criminal Court.
On August 25, the fifth anniversary of the military’s attack on the Rohingya community in Myanmar, the UK placed sanctions on three entities linked to the military leadership.