Two years since Myanmar’s most prominent constitutional and human rights lawyer Ko Ni was assassinated in broad daylight and still there is no justice in sight.
The lack of closure is all the more telling considering Ko Ni had high-level ties to the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party and was working from behind the scenes to amend a constitution that gives disproportionate political and administrative powers to the military.
Ko Ni was shot and killed on January 29, 2017 while leaving a terminal building at Yangon’s international airport upon his return from a trip overseas. Kyi Lin, the gunman, was captured at the scene after a struggle in which he also shot and killed a taxi driver, Nay Win, who heroically ran after the assailant.
Ko Ni’s burial in accordance with Muslim rituals, was carried out within 24 hours of his death. At his funeral, the road to the Muslim cemetery in Yangon’s North Okkalapa suburb was lined with cars, minivans and buses as thousands of people came to pay their last respects.
The majority of the mourners were skullcap-wearing Muslims, but people of various faiths were among the massive crowd, underscoring the respect he commanded across religious lines. International media speculated at the time whether his assassination was somehow related to his faith, with some reports linking the killing to the military’s campaign against Muslim Rohingya in western Rakhine state.
Those assessments missed the mark, according to his close associates. Ko Ni served as a legal adviser to State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s ruling NLD and a partner to local press freedom and human rights groups pushing for democratic change. He was focused on amending, or even abolishing, the military’s 2008 constitution at the time of his murder. The charter guarantees a dominant political role for the armed forces, including through a 25% appointed bloc in parliament.
Despite the transition to an elected government after decades of direct or proxy military rule, the armed forces still take their marching orders only from the military commander-in-chief under the constitution. The military also oversees the country’s three most powerful ministries, namely defense, home and border affairs. The police, including its omnipresent special branch, are housed under the Home Ministry.
Any change to constitutional clauses that undergird that military-dominated structure require a vote in the two-chamber parliament where more than 75% of lawmakers must support amendment. The military appoints 25% of all seats in both chambers, giving it virtual veto power over any attempt through constitutional amendment to pave the way for more democratic rule.
Ko Ni was known to be working on a new, more democratic constitution, arguing in private that while the NLD-dominated parliament may be limited in its ability to amend the constitution, there was no law preventing it from abolishing the charter and adopting a new one.
In discussions with this correspondent, Ko Ni frequently raised issues related to Myanmar’s incomplete transition to democracy.
He also worked with journalists to understand the legal threats they face in practicing their trade, and how to protect themselves from ending up in politically motivated libel or defamation suits.
Although he believed in equal treatment for people of all faiths, he always considered his own religious affiliation a private matter. Ko Ni was born in Katha in Myanmar’s far northern region and later earned degrees in law from Yangon University in 1975 and 1976.
As a student, he was vice president of the university’s law association and became active in the pro-democracy uprising that swept the country in 1988. At that time, Ko Ni joined the NLD along with many other prominent lawyers and soon rose to become its chief legal adviser.
Judging by court proceedings, justice won’t likely be served any time soon for his murder. In March 2017, four men were brought before a court in Yangon: the identified assassin, Kyi Lin, a 53-year-old former convict released in a presidential amnesty in 2014, Aung Win Zaw, a former army lieutenant, ex-Captain Zeyar Phyo and alleged accomplice Aung Win Tun.
A fifth suspect, Aung Win Zaw’s brother, Aung Win Khaing, is still at large after curiously disappearing in the capital Naypyitaw soon after the assassination. Independent investigators believe he was the likely mastermind behind the plot.
A former military colonel, Lin Zaw Htun, was also questioned by police but was ultimately not charged over his ties to the two ex-army suspects, local media reported. According to The Irrawaddy, a local news site, Lin Zaw Htun once served as a personal security officer for military commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.
Lin Zaw Htun retired from the army in 2015 to run for a parliamentary seat he later won under the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party.
The fact that the gunman knew Ko Ni was returning to Myanmar on a particular international flight — from Jakarta with a change in Singapore — and was waiting for him outside at the airport’s right exit hints at a well-planned plot.
Such flight details are not available to the general public in Myanmar, and certainly not to someone like Kyi Lin, an ex-convict from the central city of Mandalay previously involved in illegal smuggling.
A Yangon court is scheduled to hear final arguments in the case on February 1. But, as the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) said in a statement, “the investigation…has been beset by obstacles, including the unknown whereabouts of a primary suspect … and the reported military involvement in the police investigation.”
Because several of the suspects are ex-army officers there is strong speculation among independent observers of possible military involvement in the killing, though armed forces’ spokespeople have firmly denied any role.
At a February 28, 2017 press conference in Yangon, General Mya Tun Oo, the armed forces’ chief of general staff, dismissed such speculation as unfounded while noting that the suspects in custody are no longer commissioned to the army.
Regardless of the final verdict, suspicions of high-level military involvement in Ko Ni’s killing will persist. “A credible justice process is required not only for Ko Ni and his family, but to demonstrate the state will protect the right of life of all people including democracy advocates,” Sean Bain, legal adviser to the ICJ, said in the statement.
But in today’s Myanmar, that’s likely wishful thinking. As ICJ notes, the circumstances surrounding the killing of Ko Ni “have not yet been satisfactorily explained” – and probably never will be.