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At Funeral of Slain Myanmar Lawyer, Many Fear Threat to Reform


Muslim mourners in Yangon carry the coffin of Ko Ni, a slain NLD member and lawyer, Jan. 30, 2017. (Paul Vrieze/VOA)

Thousands of mourners gathered at Yayway Cemetery on Yangon's outskirts late Monday to pay tribute to Ko Ni, a prominent Myanmar lawyer and advisor to Aung San Suu Kyi's ruling party, who was assassinated Sunday at Yangon Airport.

Moments of public grief and anguish marked the funeral. Hundreds of Muslim men shouted expressions of faith as they carried his coffin from a mosque to a nearby grave while a huge crowd looked on. Many later lined up to pour a handful of sand on Ko Ni's last resting place.

Nyan Win and several other senior members of the National League for Democracy (NLD) came to pay their respects.

A party statement said Ko Ni's death was an “irreplaceable loss” for the NLD, while the president's office said his killing was intended to “destabilize” the nation. State Councillor Aung San Suu Kyi has not yet reacted to the killing.

Soe Lwin, a NLD member and Muslim resident from Yangon's Hlaing Township who attended the funeral, said, “Everybody was saddened and shocked. We are worried whether there will ever be anyone as competent in law as him.”

Ko Ni, a slain NLD member and constitutional lawyer.
Ko Ni, a slain NLD member and constitutional lawyer.

Gunned Down at Airport

Ko Ni was shot in the back of the head at point-blank range by a gunman as he held his grandson at the airport. The assassin also killed a taxi driver who tried to prevent his escape, but the gunman was later caught by police and other drivers, two of whom were injured.

Ko Ni was a pro-democracy advocate and worked as a constitutional lawyer who advised the NLD on charter reform. The party formed Myanmar's first elected government in decades last April, but its powers remain severely curbed by the military-drafted 2008 constitution.

He was a member of the Muslim minority and spoke out not only on charter reform, but also against communal tensions with the Buddhist majority and the rise of a nationalist Buddhist movement in recent years.

On Sunday, he was returning from Indonesia with a Myanmar delegation, including Cabinet members, and Rakhine Buddhist and Rohingya Muslims leaders. They were invited to study Indonesia's resolution of communal conflict in order to help resolve Myanmar's Rakhine crisis, which has newly displaced tens of thousands of Rohingya in recent months.

Police have given no motive for the killing, but reportedly said the gunman served 11 years in Mandalay Prison before his release in a 2014 amnesty.

Most Muslim mourners interviewed on Monday believed that Ko Ni had been killed for his constitutional reform work and not because of inter-communal tensions.

“U Ko Ni used to talk about the constitution very openly and very detailed, so the public got to learn about what's wrong with the constitution,” said Soe Lwin. “It has nothing to do with religion, or Buddhist-Muslim conflict, it is only because they wanted to stop him.”

“Mr. Ko Ni knows very well about the law and how to prepare the constitution. In our country some people don't want to change the constitution, that is why [he was killed],” said Tun Kyi, a Muslim activist at the Former Political Prisoners Society, which helped organize the funeral.

He said the NLD government's response to the incident had been good so far, though he stressed that a thorough investigation into the killing should be conducted.

Bo Bo Oo, a NLD lawmaker and secretary of the Lower House Foreign Relations Committee, told VOA it was yet unclear if the parliament would call for an independent investigation, adding that police were handling the case.

Muslim mourners in Yangon pour sand on the grave of Ko Ni, a slain NLD member and lawyer, Jan. 30, 2017. (Paul Vrieze/VOA)
Muslim mourners in Yangon pour sand on the grave of Ko Ni, a slain NLD member and lawyer, Jan. 30, 2017. (Paul Vrieze/VOA)

Demands for Investigation

International rights groups, United Nations and foreign embassy representatives in Yangon, many of which had consulted Ko Ni over legal and political matters in the past, strongly called for a transparent, independent investigation into the murder.

The International Crisis Group said the killing “has all the appearances of a hate crime” and “underlines the urgency of the Myanmar government and society coming together to condemn all forms of hate speech.”

The NLD government has been relatively quiet about increased discrimination against Muslims and refrained from fielding any Muslim candidates in the 2015 elections, apparently out of fear for nationalist fervor among Buddhists at the time.

Soe Tint, a Supreme Court advocate and a close friend of Ko Ni was quietly witnessing the funeral from a distance on Monday. He declined to be drawn out on religious issues and said, “U Ko Ni did his best for the NLD and the democratization of the country without caring for his personal interests.

“It is very difficult to have an opinion [about the killing], but there might be a mastermind behind it. I think there is some malicious attitude towards his contributions to the NLD and the political progress so far.”

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