Myanmar artist Ko Htein Lin was arrested Wednesday evening alongside his wife, the former British ambassador Vicky Bowman. According to two anonymous sources who spoke with the New York Times, the couple was transported to Insein Prison, the infamous facility in Myanmar where political prisoners have been detained under various military dictatorships over the past half-century. Both were charged with immigration law violations, with their hearing set for September 6.
The military junta — which seized power from the democratically elected, civilian government in February 2021 — has gradually escalated its attacks on pro-democracy activists. It removed former state counselor Aung San Suu Kyi from power when it took over, and placed her under house arrest, subsequently sentencing her to five years in prison on corruption charges in a trial held in secret. In late July, the junta announced that they had executed four activists — two of whom Htein Lin called “friends” in an interview with the Art Newspaper just two weeks ago. “They were fellow artists — musicians, painters, poets,” he said, adding, “no one who lives in Myanmar today feels safe. Life is very fragile, whoever you are.”
Since last year’s coup, the junta has steadily continued to respond with violence to protests and strikes, deploying water cannons, rubber bullets, and live fire on demonstrators. The United Nations warns that Myanmar is experiencing an “intensification of violence and a rapid rise in poverty” amid a deteriorating human rights landscape. Meanwhile, Myanmar is entering a second successive year of economic contraction, a result of both macroeconomic circumstances and internal political conflict.
Lin’s career has been characterized by vocal political activism, beginning with his participation in the student movement at Yangon University in 1988. When a military takeover forced him to go underground, he studied art informally in a refugee camp and later a student rebel camp. He staged his first solo shows in Yangon in 1996 and 1997 upon his return, before being arrested and locked in prison for seven years for his activism. Despite the overriding restrictions of imprisonment, Htein Lin continued to develop his artistic practice while incarcerated, and once told the New York Times that prison was where he produced his best work. Over the course of his time in prison, Htein Lin smuggled out about 300 paintings and sculptures, some of which landed in the Burmese art history archives at the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam. Lin used prison uniforms, syringes, and cigarette lighters as his artistic mediums.
Htein Lin and Bowman join over 15,000 people who have been arrested and 12,000 who have been imprisoned since last year’s coup. The director of the human rights group Burma Campaign UK told the New York Times that Bowman’s detention was “shocking and surprising news,” suggesting that she’s being held hostage for her husband’s activism.
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