No justice for slain Myanmar lawyer Ko Ni

No justice for slain Myanmar lawyer Ko Ni

Contributor Bertil Lintner knew intimately the ruling National League for Democracy’s top legal advisor and his plan to enact a more democratic constitution

This photograph taken on November 10, 2013 shows Muslim lawyer Ko Ni delivering a public address on amending Myanmar's 2008 constitution, as senior National League for Democracy (NLD) party patron Tin Oo (R) listens, in Yangon.  
Thousands of mourners gathered on January 30, 2017 to bury Ko Ni, a top Muslim lawyer and adviser to Aung San Suu Kyi, who was gunned down outside Yangon airport in what the ruling party called a political assassination. / AFP PHOTO / Hong Sar

This photograph taken on November 10, 2013 shows Muslim lawyer Ko Ni delivering a public address
on amending Myanmar’s 2008 constitution, as senior National League for Democracy (NLD) party patron Tin Oo (R) listens, in Yangon. Thousands of mourners gathered on January 30, 2017 to bury Ko Ni, a top Muslim lawyer and adviser to Aung San Suu Kyi, who was gunned down outside Yangon airport in what the ruling party called a political assassination. / AFP PHOTO / Hong Sar

Four months since Ko Ni, one of Myanmar’s most prominent and talented lawyers, was assassinated in broad daylight outside Yangon’s airport and local authorities are not any closer to solving the case. The gunman, Kyi Lin, was apprehended only because furious taxi drivers parked outside the airport chased and apprehended him.

An antique smuggler from Mandalay, Kyi Lin had obviously been hired to kill on the fateful day of January 29. But the person who has been named as the possible mastermind of the plot, a former army officer known as Aung Win Khaing, vanished without a trace in the capital Naypyitaw after the killing — quite a feat given the military-built city’s vast, almost empty streets and scattered building complexes.

The ineptitude of the investigation has been matched only by misleading reports in the Western media. Nearly all major Western publications, including the Economist, the Financial Times, the New York Times and the Washington Post, dwelled on Ko Ni’s religion, Islam, as a probable motive.

The Economist called Ko Ni a “prominent defender of religious minorities”, while the Financial Times described him as “one of Myanmar’s most prominent Muslim voices.” The BBC even linked their account of the killing to its previous reports on the persecution of minority Muslim Rohingyas in western Rakhine State.

As an old friend and colleague, I was distraught to read those reports. I recalled John F. Kennedy, a Catholic of Irish descent, who famously said before he was elected president of the United States in 1960 that “I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party candidate for president who also happens to be a Catholic.”

People carry the coffin of prominent Muslim lawyer Ko Ni during a funeral ceremony held in Yangon, Myanmar on January 30, 2017. Ko Ni was shot in the head at Yangon International Airport on Sunday evening as he returned from a visit to Indonesia as part of a Myanmar delegation of Muslim leaders and government officials. Photo: Kyaw Kyaw / Anadolu Agency

Likewise, Ko Ni was first and foremost a constitutional and human rights lawyer who also happened to be a Muslim. In our many wide-ranging discussions, he never mixed his personal faith with his wider role as a legal defender of the human rights of all Myanmar’s citizens, regardless of their race or religion.

Portrayals of Ko Ni as a “Muslim activist” have only played into the hands of those who would want people to believe his assassination was part of the Buddhist-Muslim communal violence that has wracked the country in recent years. Those misreadings of the situation have given the apparent military culprits an alibi for their widely suspected role in his killing.

Ko Ni was a partner in the investigative journalism program I have led in Myanmar for the past two and a half years. He spoke at the workshops about legal matters affecting the media, providing sage advice to young, aspiring journalists on how to protect themselves against threats in the country’s new, less-censored semi-democratic context.

“The 2008 constitution guarantees press freedom and freedom of speech,” he would often say during his presentations, “But…”. Then he would enumerate the long list of those exceptions — defamation, libel, trespassing, unlawful association, exposing official secrets — and proceed to explain how reporters could best protect themselves against such legal threats.

Myanmar journalists wearing caps reading 'Press Freedom'. Photo: AFP/ Soe Than Win

As a long-time friend, we also shared numerous discussions in private on a wide range of topics, including the country’s delicate political situation with the military still lying in the wings. In those many talks, I don’t ever recall him touching on any subject relating to religion, other than the broad notion that there should be religious freedom in a democratic nation.

So then why was Ko Ni assassinated? People familiar with his work knew that he was drafting a new, more democratic constitution to replace the current charter, which was adopted after a fraudulent referendum in 2008 and bestows ultimate political power on the military, not elected bodies.

The current charter gives the military a 25% appointed block in parliament and control over the government’s three most powerful ministries, namely defense, home and border affairs. Ko Ni’s main concern was the General Administration Department, a body under the Ministry of Home Affairs that staffs all local governments, from the state and region levels down to districts and townships.

While the ministers who were appointed after the 2015 election won by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) serve as nominal heads of their respective government departments, the bureaucracy underneath is still populated by military-appointed officials who dutifully served the previous rights-abusing, authoritarian regime.

Military members of parliament sit in the parliament for the historic presidential vote on March 15, 2016Myanmar's parliament will hold a historic presidential vote on March 15 expected to confirm that Htin Kyaw, a respected writer and longtime close friend of Suu Kyi will be the former junta-run nation's first civilian leader in decades.  / AFP PHOTO / ROMEO GACAD