The public is unquestionably rattled.
Days after a prominent public figure was the subject of a daylight “political assassination”, shot dead in the middle of a crowded, public space, presumptions of security that were previously taken for granted – at least in an urban, Yangon experience – have been rendered obsolete. In its place has emerged a new, pervasive fear. How could such a violent, public act occur within a democracy, one that restricts personal gun ownership?
The murder of lawyer U Ko Ni, termed a “terrorist act” by the ruling party, has revealed sensitive faultlines and tests the waters of the new government’s grasp over the rule of law. It also has obvious repercussions for the security of politicians, public figures and the public.
“If they dare to do this to a ruling party figure like him, it is unimaginable what can happen to ordinary citizens,” Mohammad Shafi, 50, told The Myanmar Times as he joined the mourners at U Ko Ni’s funeral.
U Ko Ni was one of Myanmar’s most prominent and outspoken legal advisers. An advocate for multiculturalism and interfaith harmony, he was also one the very few Muslims working for the National League for Democracy-led government.
Photos taken by pedestrians and CCTV images from just before U Ko Ni’s murder show a gunman at close range, taking aim behind him as he holds his grandson, and waits for a taxi outside the Yangon International Airport. The images are chilling, unforgettable in their incongruity The isolated moment, seconds before tragedy struck, shows how a previously unthinkable act has invaded commonplace, ordinary aspects of life.
An outspoken figure, U Ko Ni was a vocal opponent where he saw injustices – such as when the National League for Democracy failed to field a single Muslim candidate in the 2015 election. He rallied against the internationally criticised “race and religions laws”, a legislative package of four which rights groups derided as discriminating against ethnic minorities and women. And he championed constitutional change and revisions to the controversial 1982 citizenship law.
He has been credited with helping to devise the clever loophole that allowed Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to take the role of state counsellor, even as she is constitutionally barred from the presidency.
His work earned him both high praise and derision. His daughter told Reuters that he was often the subject of threats and hate speech.
“My father was often threatened and we were warned to be careful, but my father didn’t accept that easily. He always did what he thought was right,” said Ma Yin Nwe Khine.
No motive for the attack has yet been identified. In leaked documents from the police, the suspect alleges to have been hired as a hitman in exchange for a car. He says in the partial transcript that he was directed to kill a “kalar”, a racial, and often religiously charged slur used to refer to people of South Asian heritage.
“If this is a hate crime, connected to the fact that U Ko Ni was a Muslim, then that needs to be revealed so that everyone can see how hatred can destroy one of the best constitutional jurists the country ever produced,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, told The Myanmar Times.
In the wake of the murder, calls have grown for increased security.
Taxi drivers at the airport have blamed the lack of security personnel present at the site for allowing a gun on the compound to begin with. Taxi drivers intervened in the incident, and were able to stop the suspected shooter from escaping. One of the pursuers, U Nay Win, was fatally wounded while he tried to chase down the armed man.
“Although U Ko Ni was the one who physically died, the reality is that this murder represents the death of the rule of law,” said U Robert Sann Aung. “Since it happened at the international airport, used by the international community, this was a very daring act. It could not have been carried out alone. There must have been a circle of people behind this. It is the responsibility of the police to investigate all the possible connections.”
Dozens of international and regional organisations released statements of sympathy after U Ko Ni’s murder, many of which called on the government to ensure the swift enactment of justice.
“The Myanmar public must see the government’s firm commitment to the rule of law, and be assured that such lamentable acts will not be tolerated in a democratic society,” said UN resident coordinator Renata Dessallien in a statement.
But the government has appeared unsteady, even uncertain in its handling of the assassination. The NLD put out a statement, which said the death represents an “irreplaceable loss for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi”, yet Daw Aung San Suu Kyi herself was not present at the burial of her close adviser. She neither sent flowers, nor according to sources has she contacted the bereaved family to personally convey condolences. The patron of the ruling party attended the funeral, but the highest-ranking government figure in attendance was Yangon Mayor U Maung Maung Soe, who was called in to help supervise security at the thousands-strong event. The administration appeared not to know how to react to such an unprecedented incident, or chose to remain silent for fear of inflaming tensions.
On January 30, the day after the murder, the President’s Office released a statement saying that the assassination had been aimed at destroying the peace and stability of the country.
Muslim leaders have asked their community to stay calm.
“It is extremely distressing that a man who fought to uphold the rule of law in Myanmar, and who genuinely championed for interreligious harmony, human rights, and independence of lawyers, has been taken away in such a senseless attack,” said independent legal expert Vani Sathisan who lived in Myanmar for three years and worked on international human rights law. She worked with U Ko Ni while setting up a human rights committee within the Independent Lawyers Association of Myanmar.
Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch said the values of inclusiveness, compassion, and rule of law that underpin democratic participation have lost a champion with the death of U Ko Ni.
“The government should ensure that the investigation is comprehensive and transparent, provide regular updates to the family and the public, and diligently get all the facts about who the suspect is and whether there were others supporting him in his heinous act,” he said.
According to the spokesperson from the Myanmar office of The European Union, they are following the police inquiry closely.
“We must allow the Myanmar authorities sufficient time to conduct a thorough investigation. From our own experience in Europe, we know that proper investigations require both time and resources and that the police cannot always disclose everything they know while the investigation is ongoing,” the spokesperson said.
“U Ko Ni was a champion of human rights, tolerance and democracy. He was a role model for many in this country. As a renowned lawyer, he was instrumental in promoting and defending the rule of law. His death is a great loss for Myanmar.”