Free from fear or favour
No tracking. No cookies

‘Myanmar’s Military Regime is in a Fight for Survival, and Will Do Anything to Cling to Power’

Dominic Hauschild reports on the arrest and detention of former British Ambassador to Myanmar Vicky Bowman

The People’s Defence force is the armed wing of Myanmar’s National Unity Government, which was formed following the 2021 military coup, and claims to be the legitimate government of Myanmar. Photo: Zuma/Alamy

‘Myanmar’s Military Regime is in a Fight for Survival, and Will Do Anything to Cling to Power’

Dominic Hauschild reports on the arrest and detention of former British Ambassador to Myanmar Vicky Bowman

Newsletter offer

Subscribe to our newsletter for exclusive editorial emails from the Byline Times Team.

In Myanmar’s Insein Prison, the stress position is a commonplace torture device.

Take the so-called Simeekhwet Dance, in which a prisoner is forced onto their knees and elbows and is severely punished if their hands or feet touch the floor. Or the Poun-Zan, a squatting position whereby a prisoner is forced onto the balls of their feet with arms raised in the air. Sharp nails are sometimes placed beneath the heels of the prisoner to ensure the position is held.

According to an account from a former Insein inmate, disobedience could mean the Poun-Zan position is enforced upon them for 240 hours straight. Depending on the seriousness of the offence, this could last for 10 days or even, in one case, a whole year.

Elsewhere in Insein Prison, overcrowding is commonplace. The roughly drawn blue ink sketches smuggled out by former inmate Nyi Nyi Htwe depict prisoners crammed side by side in a single room, their knees pulled towards their chests for lack of a single inch of space to stretch out. In another, inmates lie in tight rows as they attempt to sleep in the restrictive cells.

Originally built by the British in the late 19th Century to house around 5,000 inmates, the population at the penitentiary has swollen to an unsustainable 13,000. Forced to defecate in buckets, diseases like cholera and dysentery spread unimpeded among the population.

In recent weeks, Insein Prison added two new inmates.

Vicky Bowman was the British Ambassador to Myanmar from 2002-2006. After leaving the Civil Service, she settled down in Myanmar’s capital city Yangon with her husband, artist Htein Lin, and their 14-year-old daughter. Bowman and her husband were arrested by local authorities on 24 August, supposedly for violating the terms of her visa by staying at an address outside of Yangon, where she was registered. Htein Lin was arrested because he allegedly facilitated the move.

Civil DisserviceThe Art and Craft of Lying for Britain

Alexandra Hall Hall

The UK Foreign Office said it was “concerned by the arrest of a British woman in Myanmar” and that it was in contact with the local authorities and providing consular assistance.

Mere hours after Bowman’s arrest, the British Government announced a package of long-planned measures against the military junta that seized power in Myanmar in 2021. It included a clear signal of intent to intervene in The Gambia versus Myanmar International Court of Justice case, concerning the ongoing genocide of the Rohingya ethnic minority in the country. 

Crucially, the measures also included sanctions against several businesses linked to the military in Myanmar, including the Star Sapphire Group and Sky One Construction. In an apparent coincidence, Bowman is head of the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business. 

According to Mark Farmaner, director of Burma Campaign UK, since the 2021 coup – which saw Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party ousted – “the military has been in a fight for its domestic survival” and “will do anything to hold onto power, regardless of the international consequences”.

Since the 1960s, the military had governed Myanmar in one form or another, during which time it was willing to engage with the international community and would hesitate before causing a diplomatic crisis. However, bowing to internal and external pressure in 2015, Aung San’s NLD was allowed to form a government, albeit under careful scrutiny from its generals.

Six years on, those same generals changed their minds. But freedom given is not easily taken away, and they face widespread civil disobedience and a well-armed local militia which threatens the stability of military control. In turn, any leniency towards dissent is now in short supply. 

Where foreign actors might have previously been sanctioned or deported, staying in Myanmar appears increasingly risky.

Australian economist Sean Turnell was arrested in 2021, mere days after the military coup. The American journalist Danny Fenster spent more than five months in jail last year before his eventual release. And the Japanese documentary filmmaker Toru Kubota was arrested just this month while covering a protest in Yangon.

But Vicky Bowman’s arrest is not typical. “The Centre for Responsible Business doesn’t publish human rights reports, and Vicky disagrees in principle with international sanctions,” Farmaner told Byline Times, “she isn’t an obvious target, which means she’s clearly done something they saw as a threat and they arrested her for it.”

The arrests of Turnell, Fenster and Kubota mirror those happening elsewhere around the world, where authoritarian powers take political hostages to use as bargaining chips or to flex their muscles on the world stage. British national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was held in Iran for six years on putative spying charges and was released only this year, while the American women’s basketball player Brittney Griner is currently being detained in Russia.

Last month, the Myanmar junta’s head general, Min Aung Hlaing, laid out the belligerent strategy in plain terms to a visiting UN special envoy, Noeleen Heyzer. “With regard to the case of Mr Sean Turnell, should the Australian Government take positive steps, we will not need to take stern actions,” he said.

Don’t miss a story

Elsewhere, the military is still consolidating its power. For several years it has been secretly installing Chinese-built security cameras equipped with facial recognition capabilities in cities across the country. This technology received international notoriety when it was used by Beijing to crack down on pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong. 

For the first time since the 1980s, Myanmar’s military authorities executed four political activists, including Phyo Zeya Thaw, a former member of the NLD; and Kyaw Min Yu, also known as Ko Jimmy, a prominent democracy advocate in the country. A further 100 people in Myanmar are also believed to be on death row. 

“These executions amount to arbitrary deprivation of lives and are another example of Myanmar’s atrocious human rights record,” said Amnesty International’s regional director Erwin van der Borght. “The four men were convicted by a military court in highly secretive and deeply unfair trials.

“For more than a year now, Myanmar’s military authorities have engaged in extrajudicial killings, torture and a whole gamut of human rights violations. The military will only continue to trample on people’s lives if they are not held accountable.”  

It’s uncertain what Bowman’s fate will ultimately be. For now, local news outlets are reporting that Bowman and Htein have been relocated from Insein Prison to local police stations, but that is certainly not the end of it.

“Vicky will likely return to Insein Prison at some point,” added Mark Farmaner. “Most former political prisoners come out with malnutrition, serious health conditions and heart problems that follow them for the rest of their lives.

“The authorities in Myanmar aren’t interested in diplomacy or international procedure. If they’re hoping these arrests will prevent further economic sanctions, they are wrong. But there is very little the British Government can do for Vicky right now.”

Written by

This article was filed under
, ,