By Jan Servaes*
Vicky Bowman was Britain’s ambassador to Myanmar from 2002 to 2006. After completing her role as ambassador, she remained in the country as the founder of the NGO Myanmar Center for Responsible Business (MCRB), which is supported by the UK Institute for Human Rights & Business (IHRB) and the Danish Institute for Human Rights (DIHR). It is a non-profit initiative that advises investors on human rights issues in the country.
The United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, unanimously endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council in June 2011, are key to the MCRB’s mission and activities. It is in this capacity that I met her in May 2016 during a study trip with students from the City University of Hong Kong. She is fluent in Burmese and is married to Myanmarese Htein Lin, a prominent artist and former political prisoner. Htein Lin spent six and a half years behind bars for his role in the student-led uprisings against the old military junta in 1998. He is one of the country’s most famous artists, known for a series of paintings he painted in prison made with smuggled materials. He was released in 2004. The couple married in 2006.
Bowman was second secretary in the embassy in Rayong from 1990 to 1993. She has also worked in Brussels as cabinet member of European Commissioner Chris Patten (1999-2002) and as press secretary of the UK representation to the EU (1996-1999).
In 2011, she co-wrote the global mining company Rio Tinto’s policy on transparency and human rights, was Director of Global & Economic Issues for the United Kingdom from 2008 to 2011, and Head of the Southern Africa Division in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of the United Kingdom from 2006-2007.
On August 24, 2022, she was arrested at her home in Yangon, along with her husband Htein Lin, and charged with immigration offences. The charge was that she had moved from an address listed on her alien registration certificate. Her husband was arrested for allegedly helping his wife live at a different address – his property – than their registered home in Yangon. .On September 2, 2022, they were sentenced to one year in prison for this.
A spokesman for the British Foreign Office said the UK will continue to support Mrs Bowman and her family until their case is resolved. Relations between Myanmar and the United Kingdom, the former colonial ruler, have been strained since the February 1, 2021 coup. London has imposed several sanctions on both companies and individuals associated with the junta.
One of many
Since the coup, thousands of people have been arrested and most are held in shady and inhumane conditions. Human rights groups have repeatedly expressed concern about the punishment of pro-democracy activists. The nonprofit Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) says more than 2,200 people have been killed—some tortured in detention and others shot by the military.
In July, four men—including a former lawmaker and a prominent pro-democracy activist—were executed after being convicted on terrorism-related charges, sparking widespread international condemnation. Western governments, including the US and the UK, have imposed sanctions on the junta and military-affiliated companies since the coup, but the military is showing no signs of changing course. It feels especially bolstered by the support of Russia and China, and the silence of most ASEAN countries, especially Thailand and Cambodia.
The most prominent detainee is the country’s ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was detained on the day of the coup and later charged with at least 18 crimes. Suu Kyi, 77, has been sentenced to months of closed hearings on several of those charges, including corruption, inciting unrest and illegally importing walkie-talkies. The early September trial involved the November 2020 general election that won its National League for Democracy (NLD) overwhelmingly, defeating the party founded by the military.
On September 2, she was found guilty of electoral fraud, receiving an additional three years of hard labor and bringing her total prison sentence to 20 years. One of her advisers, Australian economist Sean Turnell, has been incarcerated for more than a year while on trial for violating an official colonial-era confidentiality law.
The junta’s attempts to consolidate its power through arrests and assassinations are apparently not yielding the hoped-for results. While junta leader Min Aung Hlaing, after long insistence, first met Russian leader Putin on the sidelines of the Moscow-organized Eastern Economic Forum (EEF), which took place in Vladivostok, armed groups say the junta has lost nearly 90 bases in fighting in 17 months since the coup. with resistance forces and ethnic armed organizations (EAOs). About 70% of the Chin state in western Myanmar is now controlled by the resistance.
*Jan Servaes was UNESCO-Chair in Communication for Sustainable Social Change at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He taught ‘international communication’ in Australia, Belgium, China, Hong Kong, the US, Netherlands and Thailand, in addition to short-term projects at about 120 universities in 55 countries. He is the editor of the 2020 Handbook on Communication for Development and Social Change