The killing of a prominent Muslim lawyer and long-time adviser to Aung San Suu Kyi was a political assassination and terrorist act aimed at undermining the country’s stability, according to Myanmar’s government.
Ko Ni, 65, a veteran of the country’s decades-long pro-democracy struggle, was shot twice in the head outside Yangon International Airport as he cradled his grandson on Sunday evening.
Tens of thousands of distraught relatives, friends, politicians, activists and others attended his funeral in Yangon on Monday as the United Nations condemned the killing and called for an impartial investigation.
Ko Ni’s assassination has heightened communal and religious tensions in the Buddhist-majority country where the military is waging several wars against ethnic groups in border areas and conducting a brutal crackdown on Rohingyas in western Rakhine state, after deadly attacks on police border posts last October.
“There is a serious risk that in a context of strong anti-Muslim sentiment in the country, rampant hate speech on social media and virulent Buddhist nationalism propounded by some senior Buddhist monks, this crime could embolden others and unleash further violence,” the International Crisis Group warned.
Ko Ni was a widely respected expert in constitutional law and a powerful voice in the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) against the country’s military, which still dominates key security and other institutions, despite the NLD being swept into office after a landslide victory at elections in late 2015.
Ko Ni was also a strong advocate for the rights of the country’s Muslim minority. Friends and relatives said he had had received death threats from Buddhist nationalist groups.
Bertil Lintner, a Myanmar expert, said the ambush after Ko Ni’s return from a government-led trip to Indonesia indicates that a 53-year-old gunman who was apprehended after being chased by scores of airport taxi drivers appeared to be part of a plot.
He said whoever was behind the killing knew the arrival time of Ko Ni’s flight, pointing to a high degree of organisation.
Yin Ngwe Khine, who went to the airport to greet her father, told reporters he always said that someone had to stand up for the truth.
“My father was talking to his grandson. Then I heard a gunshot. At first I thought it was a car tyre blowing out, then I saw my father lying on the ground,” she said.
Taxi driver Nay Win, 42, was killed as he attempted to apprehend the gunman.
The NLD described the killing as a terrorist act aimed at its policies.
Yanghee Lee, the UN’s special rapporteur for Myanmar, said the killing was another shocking example of reprisal against those speaking out about the rights of others, pointing out that after a recent visit to the country she issued a statement highlighting her concern at the increasing risks faced by human rights defenders, lawyers, journalists and others working on sensitive issues.