In a country torn by ethnic strife, Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi hailed a prominent Muslim lawyer and government advisor who was slain in an assassination-style killing as a hero and martyr whose example should inspire the nation.
"In a time when people are afraid to do what should be done, in a time when people are too afraid to refuse to do what should not be done, it is my wish for us to draw courage and strength from the constant realization that there are heroes and martyrs among the members of our party and in our country,” Aung San Suu Kyi said during a memorial service on Sunday.
Her speech marked the first time Aung San Suu Kyi has broken her silence on the brutal murder of Ko Ni, a prominent Muslim lawyer and critic of Myanmar’s powerful military.
Ko Ni was shot dead as he held his grandson on Jan. 29 outside Yangon airport in a murder that shocked the country. A taxi driver, Ne Win, was also killed trying to stop the gunman, who authorities said was hired by a former military officer who is on the run.
“Losing someone like U Ko Ni is such a deep loss for the National League for Democracy (NLD),” she said. “The fact that he worked together with the party for many years through his belief is also something that our party is proud of,” she said. “I respect and value him a lot.”
Ang San Suu Kyi described Ko Ni as a constitutional expert and a tireless supporter of the rule of law.
“U Ko Ni is someone who loved to talk about the law even after the listener got bored,” she told a packed house at Tawwin Hinnsi Hall in Yangon. “He had a big interest in the law and especially the constitution.”
A critic of both sides
Ko Ni was a prominent critic of the military and its continued influence, including its control of key ministries and guaranteed seats in parliament, provisions in the army-written constitution that the NLD wants to eventually overturn.
Aung San Suu Kyi holds the positions of state counselor and foreign affairs minister as Myanmar’s 2008 constitution bars her from the presidency because she is the widow and mother of foreigners. The provisions appear to have been written specifically to prevent her from being eligible for the presidency.
The constitution also reserves a quarter of seats in parliament for members of the military, with the most powerful posts given to active-duty or retired generals.
While Ko Ni criticized the military and its continued influence, Ko Ni was unafraid to point out the shortcomings of the NLD, criticizing the party for its failure to field Muslim candidates. He also condemned what he saw as the increasing Islamophobia that has swept through the nation in recent years.
The murder occurred at a time when religious tension between Myanmar’s Buddhist majority and Muslim minority is running high.
A crackdown in Rakhine state by Myanmar security forces on Rohingya Muslims since October has left more than 1,000 dead and forced about 73,000 villagers to flee to safety in neighboring Bangladesh, according to United Nations estimates.
Some of the Rohingya who fled have accused Myanmar security forces of extrajudicial killings, torture, rape, and arson during the lockdown.
The investigation into Ko Ni’s murder has been criticized for ignoring possible ties to the military.
During a press conference by the Ministry of Home Affairs and Myanmar Police Force on the investigation, Lt. Gen. Kyaw Swe described the reason for Ko Ni’s murder as “extreme patriotism.”
Police Chief Zaw Win, however, blamed it on a grudge.
“It is just the behavior of the youths,” he said according to the report. “They had a personal grudge against him and decided to kill him.”
Win Htein, an NLD secretariat member, told RFA’s Myanmar Service that the press conference was reminiscent of the ones given under former Prime Minister Khin Nyunt in the military junta era that ended only in 2011.
Khin Nyunt oversaw the arrest of thousands of people, many of whom were tortured and were sentenced by kangaroo courts to decades-long prison sentences. Military intelligence units loyal to Khin Nyunt infiltrated almost every organization in the country, and he maintained networks of spies in almost every neighborhood.
“The Saturday press conference looked like the ones by Gen. Khin Nyunt in the SPDC era: Listen to what we say. It’s up to you whether you believe it or not. That’s all,” he said, dismissing the notion that the murder was carried out by young people.
“This assassination was thoroughly planned by those who are old enough to have common sense and sound judgment,” he said.
Police and the military are on the lookout for Aung Win Khaing, who is on the run, and other possible conspirators.
Aung Win Khaing is the brother of Aung Win Zaw, who was arrested on Jan. 30 in Kayin state in connection with the murder.
Aung Win Zaw told police that Aung Win Khaing promised to pay him 100 million kyats (about U.S. $73,000) to have Ko Ni assassinated and gave him 10 million kyats (U.S. $7,400) up front.
Aung Win Zaw allegedly hired a third man named Kyi Lin to assassinate Ko Ni in exchange for a car.
Kyi Lin shot 63-year-old Ko Ni at close range in the back of the head outside Yangon’s international airport after the attorney returned with a delegation of government and civic leaders from a trip to Indonesia, where they participated in a workshop on interfaith tolerance and reconciliation.
He also shot and killed taxi driver Ne Win, who had given chase after the attorney was gunned down.
‘Very proud to be Burmese’
The government previously said that the assassination was a politically motivated act meant to “destabilize the state.”
At an interfaith peace prayer in Sanchaung Township, Ko Ni’s daughter Yin New Khine told the crowd that being Muslim and Burmese are not mutually exclusive.
“My father practiced Islam, but he was very proud to be Burmese,” she said. “He was a Muslim who loved Myanmar very much. I am very proud of my father, and I am very proud to be a Burmese.”
“I always say proudly that I am a Burmese whenever I am asked,” she added. “I will love my country until I die like my father did.”
Reported by Kyaw Zaw Win, Thant Zin Oo and Aung Theinkha for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.