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2015 · issuE 4

13

How did your career begin?

I came from an Oxford science and medic

family and I thought I wanted to be a doctor.

Half way through my degree, studying Natural

Sciences at Cambridge, I realised I had

more fun reading the newspapers, travelling,

learning languages and talking to people than

sitting in a lab peering down a microscope. So

I joined the Foreign Office as I thought they

would pay me to do this, which they did. That

was 1988. Since then, also I’ve worked in the

European Commission, and for Rio Tinto,

before coming back here in 2013.

Why Myanmar?

Shortly after I joined the Foreign Office, they

tested my language aptitude and told me which

jobs I could bid for that had hard language

attached. I decided I didn’t want to learn

Chinese or Japanese as it seemed like you

would spend half your career there. I didn’t

want to do Russian as you could spend a year

learning it and never spend any of your career

there if you got kicked out in a visa tit for tat

on Day 2. And Greek was too close to home –

I wanted adventure. So Burmese was all that

was left on that year’s list. All I knew about

Burma was some photos of houses on stilts and

girls with white thanakha paste on their cheeks.

Is it unusual for a woman in

Myanmar to hold a Directorship

position?

In Myanmar, there are a lot of Myanmar

women heading up local NGOs, and running

their own businesses. There are also a lot of

women professors, and technocrats. What’s

lacking is MPs, Ministers and senior officials,

since so many people in those positions come

from the military. For me, being a woman has

always felt like being an advantage. I was the

first female British Ambassador here, and at

the time, the youngest ever Ambassador the

UK had sent anywhere.

AMinister once asked me if Britain had sent

a woman Ambassador so that his government

couldn’t bring itself to be horrible to me. I said

I’d served my time as a Hag at the Dragon,

when there were about ten girls in E Block and

over a hundred boys, so nothing they could do

to me would be tougher than that.

What are the particular challenges

that this role brings?

This country is currently running on

adrenalin which is exhilarating but

exhausting. What the Centre is trying to

do is raise awareness around international

standards and best practice around

responsible business – which means

respecting human rights, not paying bribes

etc. The economy here has been so badly run

and corrupted for decades. Suddenly change

is happening. There’s a desire to do things

differently but not much understanding

of how. This week’s challenge is working

with hotels to build an alliance to stop

sand-mining taking a grip on Myanmar’s

best beaches. Next week, it will be working

with labour activists to improve pay and

conditions in garment factories. The main

challenge is having enough time to pursue all

these opportunities.

Long term: Do you plan to stay

in Myanmar with your family

for the long term or will you return

to the UK?

My husband is a Myanmar artist and a public

figure. He’s currently plastering the arms and

taking the stories of other former political

prisoners like himself, for a multimedia

Vicky Bowman

(OD 1975) is the first Director of the new Myanmar

Centre for Responsible Business, based in Yangon.

A former British diplomat fluent in Burmese, Vicky draws on seven

years of living in Yangon, and has vast experience of Myanmar,

international relations and working on responsible business issues

within the private sector and government. The Centre will provide a

trusted, impartial forum for dialogue, seminars, and briefings to relevant

parties as well as access to international expertise and tools. Vicky

spoke to

The OD

about her extraordinary career and life in Myanmar.

dragOn

in BurMa

dragOn in BurMa

installation called

A Show of Hands

. He’s

about five hundred down with a couple of

thousand more to go.

It’s a privilege to live and work in a

country where as an individual, what you

do can lead to a systemic difference. Like all

parents, I am constantly worrying about my

seven year old daughter’s education options.

She goes to a good private primary school,

even if it’s not the Dragon. She eats noodles

for breakfast and snacks on fried crickets. I

am supplementing her Asian experience with

box sets of Horrible Histories and Harry

Potter. Which is all a way of saying I’m torn

and I don’t know yet whether we will return –

or in my husband’s case, leave again.

What advice would you give

to a young Dragon hoping have

a career in the Foreign and

Commonwealth Office?

It’s a fascinating job, but it’s very competitive.

To get in, there’s no one subject to study or

language to learn, although it doesn’t hurt to

learn Russian, Chinese, Farsi or Arabic before

you join. Take every opportunity to learn a

language that the FCO gives you. Don’t give

up on the idea because you are worried about

whether you can juggle a peripatetic lifestyle

and family life. There are many different

career paths, and you are always free to leave

and do something else.

What do you envisage for

Myanmar’s future?

We are going through a bumpy time in

2015 with the run-up to what will be a hotly

contested election. I worry that when I look

at countries in the region, I don’t see many

examples of sustained democratic transitions

which have lifted people out of poverty but

protected the environment and their distinct

cultures. I hope this country will be different.

On the positive side, ‘Repats’ are still

returning which is a good sign as they bring

skills and a refusal to accept the status quo,

having lived in countries where government

functions and is accountable. And there is

still a buzz and an optimism that positive

change is achievable.

“I was the

first female

British

Ambassador

here, and at

the time, the

youngest ever

Ambassador

the UK

had sent

anywhere”

Vicky Bowman