A prominent Muslim human rights lawyer and advisor to Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi was shot dead on Sunday at Yangon airport, prompting the country's president to issue an appeal for calm in the Buddhist-majority country and a call to remain watchful against agitation leading to religious disturbances.
Ko Ni, a 63-year-old legal advisor to the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party that came into power last April, was shot at close range in the back of the head while he held his grandson outside the Yangon airport following a trip to Indonesia as part of a Myanmar government delegation to discuss interfaith tolerance and reconciliation.
Ko Ni was an outspoken critic of anti-Muslim attitudes held by Myanmar’s Buddhist nationalists and the country’s powerful military. He formally joined the NLD in October 2013, though he had previously supported Aung San Suu Kyi’s party process and provided legal advice.
The office of President Htin Kyaw issued a statement on Monday saying the killing was meant to disrupt peace and stability in the country and thanking citizens for helping arrest of the gunman. It also requested that people remain calm.
“The initial interrogation indicates the intention to destabilize the state,” said a translated copy of the statement. “Investigations are being carried out by the government to find out the truth. Security has been heightened in the aftermath of the assassination.”
“This being so, people are requested not to be stricken by panic and to stay quietly and peacefully, to be careful of religious and racial incitements and inform authorities concerned in case of finding evidence concerning this case of assassination and actions aimed at destabilizing the state.”
Ko Ni’s murder comes as the country grapples with a crisis in the northern part of its volatile Rakhine state where a crackdown by Myanmar security forces on Rohingya Muslims since October left about 90 people dead and forced more than 65,000 villagers to flee to safety in neighboring Bangladesh.
The Rohingya have accused the military of indiscriminate killings, rape, torture and arson during the security operations, though both the Myanmar government and army have denied the allegations.
A taxi driver who tried to detain the killer was also shot dead, and the gunman was arrested at the scene. The motive of Ko Ni’s murder remains unknown.
“His daughter ran and grabbed the child and screamed out, “Father, Father,’” said Tin Hlaing, an ethnic Rakhine town elder from the Rakhine capital Sittwe who was on the Indonesia trip with Ko Ni.
“The gunman retreated 20 or 30 steps, yelled out not to come near him, and ran when the taxi driver gave chase,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
Tin Hlaing said that he, Ko Ni, and the other members of the government delegation were in Indonesia to learn about its policies and laws to forge peace between Muslims and Christian following clashes in the Maluku Islands in the late 1990s.
Military and NLD comment
The office of Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in-chief of the country’s defense services, said in a statement that it will cooperate with security personnel at Yangon International Airport in Mingaladon, 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) north of downtown Yangon, to investigate the case. The office also expressed condolences to the family of the deceased.
The NLD issued a statement condemning the violent murder and described Ko Ni’s death as an irreplaceable loss for Aung San Suu Kyi and the party because he unfailingly provided necessary legal advice and suggestions to the party chairman.
The NLD also applauded taxi driver Ne Win, a 42-year-old member of NLD’s Mingaladon branch, who was shot by the gunman while trying to capture him.
Win Htein, a member of the NLD’s central executive committee, asked why Ko Ni in particular was murdered.
“He always talked about and supported efforts for the rule of law in the country, and he couldn’t have had any bitter enemies,” he told RFA. “He’s irreplaceable for the NLD. It’s a big loss.”
Win Htein also said the lawyer’s murder could have been politically motivated.
NLD lawmaker May Win Myint called the assassination “a blatant challenge to those of us who are working for democracy.”
“I think they [the perpetrators] are trying to show that they can do anything to anyone of us anywhere,” she said.
Monywa Aung Shin, the NLD’s information officer, took Myanmar authorities to task for not providing adequate security measures to protect Ko Ni.
“Those responsible in the government, parliament, and military should think hard and revamp their security programs,” he said. “You can never tell if this kind of attack wouldn’t have targeted other leaders.”
“Ko Ni was a brilliant lawyer both political and legally for the NLD, and it is not difficult to figure out why he was murdered,” he said.
Other politicians questioned whether the assassination was politically motivated.
Thein Tun, a lawmaker from the opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) called it “a very rare incident, totally unexpected, in our country where we had lived in harmony with our own cultures.”
“There could be a reason [for the killing] that is unknown to us, and I hope it was not religiously or politically motivated,” he said.
Ba Shein, an ethnic Rakhine representative for the Arakan National Party in the lower house of the national parliament believes weak security is to blame for Ko Ni’s death.
“[I] don’t think it is politically or religiously motivated,” he said. “Ko Ni never spoke carelessly. It all happened because of a weakness in security measures.”
The 88 Generation Peace and Open Society Group, formerly known as the 88 Generation Students, which worked with the NLD to ensure free and fair general elections in 2015, and the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) party, also issued statements calling for effective action against the gunman and any others behind the assassination.
Mya Aye, a Muslim youth leader of the 88 Generation group, who returned from Indonesia together with Ko Ni, told RFA that he was halfway home from the airport when he heard the news.
“I was really shocked to hear the news,” he said. “And I was really worried that misunderstandings and unnecessary problems might follow this incident.”
He said it was still too early to comment on the case, but that it is necessary for investigators to determine if there were any other people who planned the assassination behind the scenes and why they did it.
The Myanmar Independent Lawyers Association of which Ko Ni was a central executive committee member called his death the murder of the rule of law and condemned it as a cowardly act.
Rights groups weigh in
Three international rights groups issued statements or commentaries on Ko Ni’s death.
Josef Benedict, Amnesty International’s deputy campaigns director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, called the killing “an appalling act that has all the hallmarks of an assassination” and urged authorities to conduct a thorough, independent, and impartial investigation.
“His death will send shock waves across the human rights community in the country and beyond, and the authorities must send a clear message that such violence will not be tolerated and will not go unpunished,” he said.
Linda Lakhdhir, a legal advisor in the Asia Division of New York-based Human Rights Watch, wrote on Monday that Ko Ni’s death is “a grave loss for Burma and for all those who seek to promote tolerance and respect for human rights in the country.”
“As one of the few remaining Muslims with the stature to influence the NLD’s policies, he was a voice of reason amid a rising tide of intolerance,” she said.
Matthew Smith, chief executive officer of Fortify Rights, called on authorities to find all those behind the attack.
“We’re shocked and deeply saddened by this heinous act,” he said in a statement issued Monday. “Authorities should do everything in their power to ensure accountability and bring those responsible to justice.”
Fortify Rights noted that though Ko Ni’s work was widely respected, the lawyer faced frequent harassment and intimidation by Myanmar’s political and religious hard-liners.
Laid to rest
Ko Ni was buried on Monday afternoon according to Muslim rites at Yay Way Muslim cemetery on the outskirts of Yangon during a funeral attended by tens of thousands of people, while the gunman, 53-year-old Kyi Lwin, was being held at Mingaladon police station.
The Yangon regional government said it will handle funeral arrangements for the taxi driver Ne Win who was shot in the groin by the gunman when he tried to hit the latter with a brick.
The regional government will also oversee the prosecution of gunman Kyi Lwin, who served a prison sentence in the 2000s for smuggling ancient Buddhist stupas and was released in a presidential amnesty in 2014, according to a report in the online journal The Irrawaddy.
Ne Win is survived by three children who are seven years old, four years old, and 45 days old.
The 88 Generation Peace and Open Society Group said it is setting up a fund for the children’s future.
Though Aung San Suu Kyi, who also serves as Myanmar’s state counselor and foreign affairs minister, has not publicly commented on the killing, the NLD has described Ko Ni’s murder as a “terrorist act.”
Reported by Kyaw Thu, Thiri Min Zin, Thiha Tun, Waiyan Moe Myint, Win Naung Toe, and Win Ko Ko Latt for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.