Vicky Bowman, the diplomat who caught the Burma bug

04 April 2017
Vicky Bowman, the diplomat who caught the Burma bug

As a British diplomat fresh in the country in 1990, Vicky Bowman dove enthusiastically into Burmese culture, mastering the language and making friends among the dissidents that operated, surreptitiously, in Yangon’s arts and literary scene—at a time when encounters with foreigners could earn locals heavy police harassment.
After her stint as second secretary at the British embassy from 1990-3, Vicky returned as ambassador from 2002-6, during a very different era in Western policy on Burma. Direct contact with Myanmar’s ruling military junta was actively discouraged by Whitehall, in favour of gestures of solidarity with the pro-democracy opposition.
Later on, time spent at the Foreign and Commonwealth head office in London—as director of global and economic issues from 2008-11—was followed by a move into the private sector, where, over two years, Vicky directed the global mining company Rio Tinto’s compliance with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
In 2013, Vicky moved back to Myanmar to head the newly created Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business. The Centre has since produced reviews of critical sectors in Myanmar’s economy—tourism, oil and gas, and ICT—has advocated for legal and regulatory changes to bring business practice in line with international human rights standards. It also provides a neutral venue for networking and discussion.
Vicky talks with Mizzima about Myanmar’s journey since 1990, her formative experiences in the country,and why she decided to stay on.
Q: Vicky, how did it all begin with you and Myanmar?
A: I studied science at university but came to the conclusion that I wanted to travel and learn languages. Around that time I was applying to join the foreign office, I had a drink with a former boyfriend who’d just come out from a trip to the lighthouse south of Mawdinsun, south of Pathein [capital of Ayeyarwady Region]. He showed me pictures of Burma, which I’d never heard much about or focused on.
I had no family connections here, no grandfathers or uncles who’d fought in the war. I just remember seeing the pictures of houses on stilts, and women with white patches on their faces, and that stuck in my mind; so that, when I joined the foreign office back in 1989, and they came up with a list of places that you can learn languages for, I actually put Cuba first and Burma second. And Burma came up for me.
I came out here in July 1990, having studied Burmese in London at the School of Oriental and African Studies. This was immediately after the 1990 election [won by the National League for Democracy, with the ruling military junta dismissing the result], when the country was in a pause period. There was Military Intelligence (MI) everywhere; when I went off to Mandalay to learn more Burmese, I was followed by MI every morning—unless I cycled so fast that they couldn’t catch up with me.
I use to try and go off to meet people to practice my Burmese skills, and usually I’d find that, after one day, after agreeing to meet for a second time, people would turn up ashen-faced, saying, sorry, I can’t see you again—my father told me I mustn’t meet foreigners. It was a very different time.
The thing that used to really upset me was the harassment of people who, often simply out of hospitality,would talk with me. I remember once going up to Lashio [in northern Shan State] for the first time in early 1993 and meeting an old Shan friend there. He went away to organise breakfast for us and, on return, was practically green because he’d been so harassed by military intelligence.
How did you negotiate these heavy restrictions, in order to learn about the country and build friendships?
My period from 1990-3 as second secretary [to the British embassy] was marked by the fact that there was almost no one my age to speak to. The 88 Generation [student-led dissidents] were mostly in jail or in the jungle, so I found myself mainly dealing with old relics of the colonial period who all spoke fluent English and all wanted to play bridge.
The few people still around who were still underground activists were mostly connected to the arts scene—writers, painters, poets, and so on. That was why, partly by getting to known them, and by wanting to improve my Burmese skills, I started to do translations of short stories and poems, and collecting materials that had been buried in people’s back gardens after 1988. In the evenings at the embassy, we had no satellite TV, no phones, and certainly no internet, so I used to sit there translating dissident poetry.
I got to know writers like Ma Thida who, at the time, was writing short stories and was very much in touch with people in jail. Through her, I got to know a lot about the political prisoners but also about her own involvement in the 1988 uprising and the 1990 election campaign.
Ma Thida has gone on to be the first head of Myanmar PEN, which for me was a very poignant moment because I remember that, shortly after I left in 1993, Ma Thida was arrested, largely because of her activism, and was then adopted [as a cause] by International PEN. I helped by passing on various translations of her work, which enabled us to make her profile much higher, as a dissident writer.
I used to say to my Burmese friends that, if they thought they might become political prisoners, it would really help if they could do some writing, because there was a more organized network—with groups like Index on Censorship, Article 19 and International PEN—who would raise the profile of jailed writers, than if you were a jailed chemist or something else.
You were ambassador at a time when Britain had very frosty relations with the military government. Was it a guessing game as to what was really going on?
You couldn’t really get a sense of what was happening behind the scenes, but I was here when it all spilled out into the open briefly, when [intelligence chief and then prime minister] Khin Nyunt and Military Intelligence were defenestrated in 2004. That was fascinating to be a witness to.
Generally, I was actively discouraged to meet military people by my government, but occasionally we would go on tours with other ambassadors up-country, where we’d get to sit down with members of the military around the dinner table. We discovered that they were generally more scared of us than we ever were of them. You could tell that they’d been told to watch out for foreigners—they’re all out to get us!
I would chat with them in Burmese about their lives and families, and sometimes talk about deeper issues. At the end they would say, gosh, it was really rather nice talking to you. What really came across was how isolated the military were from international life, and how that was being passed down through the generations.
But there was plenty going on elsewhere [in Burmese society]. One of the main things I was trying to get across to people outside was that there was, then and previously, a significant civil society in Myanmar—around the artistic and literary community, but also in the social and humanitarian field.
Around the middle of my posting as ambassador, in 2004, there was a big release of political prisoners, mainly 88 Generation members, which also changed the dynamics significantly, in terms of stakeholders holding democratic ideals who were there to engage with.
The reforms begun under President U Thein Sein in 2011 seem to catch most people, inside and outside the country, by surprise. Did you see it coming at all?
When I left as ambassador in 2006, the few ministers and people in government that I had contact with said to me, Vicky, come back in 2008, it will all be much better. There was always a plan, from the [launch of] Khin Nyunt’s ‘roadmap’ in 2004 onwards, for a gradual, ‘disciplined’ democratisation, which the 2011 Thein Sein government was the end point of.
What really surprised people, including me, was when President Thein Sein suspended the Myitsone Dam [a multi-billion dollar hydropower project in Kachin State backed by China] in 2011. This was first time any of us had seen the government actually responding to the popular will.
Why do think the current government is stalling on deciding the fate of the Myitsone Dam?
I think the current government has difficulty in taking decisions. This is a big decision affecting a big partner [China]. What’s clear to me is that what the Chinese side needs—the government and company—is a decision taken according to the legal terms of the contract. Actually, if you look at the economics of the project and at the public statements of the company, they’re not necessarily looking for a continuation of the dam.
You are known as a fluent and enthusiastic Burmese speaker. How has this helped you professionally?
The generations that came after the colonial era, particularly the 88 Generation, had almost no English. So, particularly in terms of my interaction with people in the political world in the 2000s, and to some extent nowadays, being able to speak Burmese has been essential.
It’s also important to understand what words and concepts exist in Burmese. Many of the things that we deal with—in terms of responsible business, human rights, and other issues—don’t have a Burmese equivalent. We’re creating new words to try and express them. Often, the Burmese themselves are translating them in different ways.
So, having an understanding of the language being used, and being able to recognise bad translation, is important to knowing whether you’re having any impact or influence.
What were the circumstances around the creation of the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business? Were you planning to return to Myanmar anyway?
The Centre and my role were created by two parent organisations [the Institute for Human Rights and Business, and the Danish Institute for Human Rights]. Both were in touch with me, asking for advice about what responsible business, and business and human rights, should mean in Myanmar. When they asked me who the director should be, that’s when I took the job ad off them and told them don’t need to bother looking.
I was looking for a reason to come back to Myanmar because my husband [renowned Burmese performance and conceptual artist Htein Lin] was increasingly interested in returning, to be part of the changes going on. This was in early 2013, and I could see that I would increasingly be a single mother in London, with him travelling back here, unless I could find an interesting job to come back to in Myanmar.
Originally, I was thinking of returning [to the UK Foreign Office]. But my unpaid leave expired in the middle of 2016, and I realised that I could make much more impact with the work I’m doing now, which I was also finding more personally satisfying.
How does heading an NGO differ from running an embassy?
It is very different. If you’re running an NGO like my own—which is not a big network like Oxfam or Save the Children—you have a huge amount of freedom to say what you think and do public advocacy. There’s no need to refer back to anyone. You’re also more flexible in how you spend your time; you don’t have to worry about the next minister [from home] who’s going to visit, wanting a programme to be in place.
I was quite lucky during my time at the embassy, in that we were expected to be quite activist, in a way that diplomats normally aren’t. I used to occasionally get hassled from London about why I wasn’t down at the National League for Democracy every day. Which was ironic, because I’d also get hassled by the Burmese government in the New Light of Myanmar [a state-run newspaper] about why I was down there every day.
Being ambassador here at that period was compatible with promoting the values that I found important, like human rights and democracy. Whereas, now, if you’re an ambassador, you’re working in a wider and perhaps less clear structure than in those days, when it was very much black and white.
What do you consider to be the appropriate role of the international community in Myanmar at the moment? Are there risks of creating dependency, or overwhelming government and civil society structures?
I think we’ve gone from famine to feast, in terms of the assistance on offer to the government. When I was ambassador, I was arguing that we should be doing English-language training for civil servants, so that we could prepare for the future transition, but I was being knocked back and told, no, no, they were government and therefore military and therefore evil. Nowadays, you have people falling over themselves to take [members of government] on study tours and to teach them languages and technical skills.
A lot of this does seem to be driven more by the donors’ desire to have Myanmar on their menu, rather than any specific need. There is good cooperation going on here, but there is also a lot that is very duplicative and overlapping—which the country would probably be better off saying no to—because of a lack of coordination as well as a Burmese desire not to say no. As a result, there is a lot of wasted effort.
How optimistic are you now about the future of Myanmar?
When considering this question, I usually start pessimistically and then look at the mess in my own country and in the USA, and end up feeling slightly more optimistic. I think there are huge challenges here, but also an enormous amount of good will and desire for change. What is positive here is that you don’t have the kind of cynicism you find in Cambodia or Vietnam.
The government has three very major challenges: with the Rohingya; with the peace process—particularly the fighting in northern Shan and Kachin states; and with the economy. Although I agree with the priority put on the peace process, I also think the government does need to put greater talent to work on the economy, because that is what will help support solutions for the other two problems.
What I’m very keen to see is for the world that works on the peace process, including ethnic armed groups and civil society organisations, and the world that works on business regulation to come closer together, because many of the conflicts in this country are driven by bad investment, bad permitting, and poor economic governance.
There is a change afoot in economic regulation in this country, around issues like permitting and environmental impact assessment. I would like to see that change factor into improvements in economic governance in border areas and areas emerging from conflict. I think that’s possible if there’s more cross-government work, and if bureaucrats working on the investment law think more about the peace process, and if people working on the peace process think more about economic governance.
What are the three things you miss most about Britain?
The free arts events and museums in London; occasionally, the cold weather; and the quality of public debate.
What are three things you really don’t miss about Britain?
Having to wear shoes; people shouting and being aggressive to each other on the street—something you don’t get here, and which I always find shocking when I go back; and the cost of public transport.
Final thoughts?
A striking thing to note is how former British ambassadors have stayed in touch with this country. I’ve been in rooms with Andrew Patrick [the current British ambassador] where there have been three of us, plus him.
My predecessors Robert Gordon and John Jenkins come back here, with Prudential and the International Institute for Strategic Studies respectively, as well as my successor, Mark Canning, working with Bell Pottinger, and Andrew Heyn, largely through his connection with Jane Heyn and the Irrawaddy Literary Festival. This country definitely captures people.