YANGON (AFP) – The killing of a top Muslim lawyer and adviser to Aung San Suu Kyi who was gunned down outside Yangon airport was a political assassination and a “terrorist act”, Myanmar’s ruling party said Monday (Jan 30).
Ko Ni, a legal adviser to the National League for Democracy (NLD), was shot in the head on Sunday afternoon as he waited outside the airport while holding his grandson.
A dramatic photo circulating on social media showed the moment the gunman, standing behind him, took aim.
Police have not said what prompted the killing. But Ko Ni was a prominent Muslim figure who spoke out against the anti-Islamic sentiments of Buddhist hardliners and criticised the powerful military’s grip on power.
A taxi driver who tried to stop the gunman was also shot dead before the unidentified attacker was arrested.
Ko Ni had just returned from a government delegation visit to Indonesia where regional leaders were discussing sectarian tensions in Rakhine state.
Myanmar’s army has waged a crackdown on the mainly Muslim Rohingya community which has prompted tens of thousands of them to flee the state.
Ko Ni had previously criticised religious laws pushed by Buddhist nationalists.
In a statement the NLD described him as a key aide to de facto civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, saying he was “irreplacable”.
“We strongly denounce the assassination of Ko Ni like this as it is a terrorist act against the NLD’s policies,” the statement said.
The 63-year-old was a veteran member of the party which doggedly resisted decades of military rule to sweep the 2015 elections that brought Suu Kyi to power.
Ko Ni’s daughter Yin Nwe Khaing said she brought her young son to greet his grandfather at the airport, adding her father had made enemies because he had been a prominent Muslim voice.
“As we are from a different religion there were many people who didn’t like and hated it. I think that also could be a reason (for his murder),” she told DVB TV outside the hospital where her father’s body had been taken.
Senior NLD leaders, including party patron Tin Oo, met visibly distraught relatives at Ko Ni’s Yangon home on Monday morning before a funeral later in the day.
“Losing that kind of person is great loss for the country, for democratic forces and for us (the party),” Tin Oo told reporters, describing the killing as an “assassination”.
Myanmar’s border regions have simmered for decades with ethnic minority insurgencies.
But it is rare for prominent political figures to be murdered in Yangon, the country’s booming and largely safe commercial hub.
However in recent years Myanmar has witnessed a surge of anti-Muslim sentiment, fanned by hardline Buddhist nationalists.
Around five per cent of Myanmar’s population is Muslim.
Suu Kyi has herself faced criticism for not fielding a single Muslim candidate during the 2015 elections, a move which analysts said was a sop to Buddhist hardliners.
She has also faced international censure for her failure to criticise the crackdown on the Rohingya in Rakhine state.
Since the launch of the crackdown in October at least 66,000 Rohingya have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh, alleging security forces are carrying out a campaign of rape, torture and mass killings.
Suu Kyi and the military have denied allegations of abuse.
Amnesty International described Ko Ni as “a tireless human rights campaigner”, adding his death marked “the loss of an important voice in the fight for human rights in Myanmar”.
The International Crisis Group, a think-tank that has previously sounded the alarm over rising religious intolerance in Myanmar, said the killing “underlines the urgency of the Myanmar government and society coming together to condemn all forms of hate speech”.