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
People carry the coffin of prominent Muslim lawyer Ko Ni during a funeral ceremony held in Yangon, Myanmar on January 30, 2017. Photo: Kyaw Kyaw/Anadolu Agency

The road leading to a Muslim cemetery in Yangon’s North Okkalapa suburb was lined with cars, minivans and buses on Monday, carrying thousands of people who came to pay last respects to Ko Ni, one of the country’s most prominent lawyers and pro-democracy advocates. The majority of the mourners were skullcap-wearing Muslims but people of various faiths were among the massive crowd, underscoring the widespread respect Ko Ni held across religious lines.

Ko Ni, a legal advisor for the ruling National League for Democracy, was assassinated by a lone gunman on Sunday outside of Yangon’s international airport upon returning home from an overseas trip. The assassin, who was waiting for him outside the doors of the airport terminal, was arrested soon after after the shooting. He also killed a taxi driver who had tried to protect Ko Ni as the assailant opened fire. The killing had clear hallmarks of a political assassination, putting the country’s politics on a razor’s edge.

The funeral was carried out in accordance with Muslim rituals, meaning the burial had to take place 24 hours after his death. Yangon residents who knew the assassinated lawyer have generally dismissed speculation in the Western media that the murder was somehow related to his faith, with some reports even tying the targeted killing to rising communal unrest in Myanmar’s western Rakhine State.

His associates say instead that Ko Ni’s recent work focused more on amending or replacing the 2008 constitution, which guarantees a strong political role for the armed forces despite Myanmar’s transition from direct military to a semblance of democratic rule after general elections in November 2015. “All levels of government administration are under the authority of the military chief,” Ko Ni said in an interview with the website Irrawaddy on February 1, 2016, as the NLD prepared to formally take over from the previous military-dominated government.

Despite the transition, Myanmar’s armed forces still take their orders only from Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, not elected leaders, as prescribed in the military-drafted 2008 constitution. The military also appoints the three of the most important ministers, namely defense, home and border affairs. The police are under the home ministry, as is the omnipotent General Administration Department, which controls local governmental bodies in states, regions, districts, townships, village and wards throughout the country.

Any attempt to change this military-dominated power structure, as Ko Ni had strongly advocated, will require a vote in the two-chamber parliament where more than 75 percent of parliamentarians must support amendment. Because the military appoints 25 percent of all seats in both chambers, it maintains virtual veto power over any motion to change the charter and overhaul the country’s administrative structure to allow for more democratic rule.

The current elected government under the de facto leadership of State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi has recently taken the brunt of the blame for actions over which it has no power, including the escalating wars in northern Kachin and Shan states, brutal police actions against demonstrators, alleged administrative mismanagement of states and regions, and crackdowns on deemed by officials as “illegal immigrants” in Rakhine State and other areas.

In discussions with this correspondent, Ko Ni frequently raised issues related to the military’s role and Myanmar’s incomplete transition to democracy. Although he believed in equal treatment for people of all faiths, he considered his own religious affiliation a private matter and did not openly advocate for or explicitly pursue minority Muslim causes. He also recently worked with young journalists to help them understand the legal threats they face in practicing the trade and how to protect themselves from politically motivated lawsuits.

“If there was a religious dimension to the assassination, it was most likely because the assassin, or a group of people behind the gunman, wanted to stir up trouble between Buddhists and Muslims,” said one of Ko Ni’s close associates who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the topic.

If that indeed was the killer’s intent, he has not yet succeeded. A lone provocateur who appeared outside the hospital where Ko Ni’s body was being held after the assassination shouted abuse and openly expressed gratitude for the killing. His rantings were met with stunned silence by both Muslims and Buddhists at the scene.

Police stand guard at the forensics department of the hospital in Yangon on January 29, 2017. Ko Ni, a prominent member of Myanmar's Muslim minority and legal adviser for Myanmar's ruling National League for Democracy, was shot dead along with a taxi driver outside Yangon's International airport on January 29, officials said. / AFP PHOTO / YE AUNG THU
Police stand guard at the forensics department of a hospital in Yangon after Ko Ni, a prominent member of Myanmar’s Muslim minority and legal adviser for Myanmar’s ruling National League for Democracy, was shot dead along with a taxi driver outside Yangon’s International airport on January 29. Photo: AFP / Ye Aung Thu

Ko Ni, 63, was born in Katha in Myanmar’s far northern region. He earned degrees in law from Rangoon University in 1975 and 1976, where he served as vice president of the university’s law association. He was active in Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement at its inception in 1988 and remained in the country rather than fleeing into exile during the darkest days of repressive military rule.

As the NLD’s main legal adviser, he is known to have suggested the “state counsellor” title for party leader Suu Kyi, who was constitutionally banned from becoming president because she has two foreign national sons after the NLD’s resounding 2015 election victory. The party largely campaigned on her reputation as a pro-democracy icon and former political prisoner.

“That infuriated the military,” said another source who was close to Ko Ni. “They had wanted to bar her from becoming Myanmar’s head of state, but a new position was created that placed her above the president.”

It is not clear what motivated the assassin, Kyi Lin, a 53-year-old former convict released in a presidential amnesty in 2014 under the previous government, and whether there was a mastermind behind the killing. The fact that the gunman knew Ko Ni was returning to Myanmar on a particular international flight and was waiting for him directly outside of the airport hints at a well-planned, well-informed plot.

Those who familiar with Ko Ni believe his outspokenness, not his Muslim faith, was the likely motive behind his murder. Indeed, he had been privately critical of NLD leaders for not pushing hard enough for constitutional changes that would consolidate the country’s young and wobbly democracy and put the military on a back foot.

With his passing, the NLD and its rather rudderless government will be hard-pressed to fill his role in a treacherous new phase of the country’s escalating contest for political power and change.