BANGKOK (AP) — A court in military-ruled Myanmar has sentenced a former British ambassador to the Southeast Asian nation to a year in prison for failing to register her residence, a government spokesperson said Friday.
Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun confirmed earlier unofficial reports that former envoy Bowman and her husband, a Myanmar national, were each given one-year prison terms on Friday by the court in Insein Prison in Yangon, the country's biggest city.
Since 2013, Bowman has been heading the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business, a business ethics advisory group that says its goals include the promotion of human rights through responsible business in Myanmar.
The charge against Bowman has been widely seen as a pretext for cracking down on her for views the government may have considered critical, although her business was operated as a consultancy and did not play a notably vocal role in public affairs.
Responding to reports of the sentencing, Britain's Foreign Office in London said, “We will continue to support Ms Bowman and her family until their case is resolved.”
The couple were arrested on Aug. 24, the military government announced last week. It said Bowman, who served as the British envoy in 2002-2006, was detained for failing to inform the authorities last year when she and her husband moved from their registered address in Yangon to Kalaw township in Shan state in east-central Myanmar. They were arrested during a trip back to Yangon.
It said she and her husband, Htein Lin, were charged under the Immigration Act and the Foreigners Registration Rules. Bowman, who has applied for a visa to do business in Myanmar, was charged with breaching visa rules because she did not comply with regulations governing foreigners, the statement said.
Bowman was liable to six months to five years’ imprisonment because of her failure to change the address on her official residence permit registration card, it said, It was not immediately clear which of the two charges the couple were sentenced under.
Failure to properly register her address automatically put her in violation of the Immigration Act, which has catch-all provisions saying that foreigners are guilty of violating the terms of their visas if they are found to have broken other laws.
High-profile convictions of foreigners are usually followed by their expulsion from Myanmar before they serve their complete sentences, though their detention period can sometimes last for months.
Bowman’s first stint as a diplomat in Myanmar was in 1990-93 as the British embassy’s second secretary.
The government’s statement last week said Bowman’s husband was charged with abetting the failure to register the proper address.
Htein Lin is an artist and veteran political activist who was a student when he took part in Myanmar’s failed 1988 uprising against military rule. He was also a political prisoner under a past government.
Myanmar has been under military rule since February 2021, when its army ousted the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi.
The takeover triggered widespread peaceful protests which were violently suppressed and soon erupted into armed resistance. The country has slipped into what some U.N. experts characterize as a civil war.
According to detailed lists by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), an advocacy group, about 2,262 civilians have died in the military government’s crackdown on opponents and more than 15,320 people have been arrested.
Ravina Shamdasani, a spokesperson for the U.N. human rights office in Geneva, said her agency is “deeply shocked that the de facto authorities have sought to punish people who have been committed to the development of the country.”
“Overall, we have raised concerns about the miscarriages of justice for thousands of people in Myanmar. And this trial and these kinds of sentences further add to these concerns that we’ve had.,” she said at a news briefing.
The human rights group Amnesty International, reacting to reports of the sentencing, said that “Since the coup, we have seen activists, artists, journalists, students, business owners, and medical professionals arbitrarily detained and jailed by the military on the slightest pretext."
"The latest reports on the conviction of the former UK ambassador and her Burmese artist husband are extremely concerning. Myanmar’s military has a notorious track record of arresting and jailing people on politically motivated or trumped-up charges," it said in a statement.
Associated Press writers Jamey Keaten in Geneva and Danica Kirka in London contributed to this report.