Myanmar says ex-army officer ordered murder of prominent rights lawyer Ko Ni

Ko Ni, a prominent member of Myanmar's Muslim minority and legal adviser for Myanmar's ruling National League for Democracy, is seen during an interview in Yangon on Jan 13, 2016.
Ko Ni, a prominent member of Myanmar's Muslim minority and legal adviser for Myanmar's ruling National League for Democracy, is seen during an interview in Yangon on Jan 13, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

CHIANG MAI (NYTIMES) - A former military officer in Myanmar is suspected of ordering the killing of a prominent human rights lawyer who was a top adviser to the country's leader, the office of Myanmar's civilian president announced Wednesday (Feb 15).

The lawyer, Ko Ni, one of the most prominent Muslims in the majority Buddhist country, was fatally shot at Yangon International Airport on Jan 29 in what appears to have been a rare political assassination in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.

When he was killed, Ko Ni, who was 65, was returning to Yangon, Myanmar, from a trip to Indonesia. He had been cradling his young grandson in his arms when he was shot in the head.

In a statement released Wednesday evening, the president's office said that Aung Win Khine, 45, a retired lieutenant colonel, was suspected of paying 100 million kyat, or about $71,500, to the person who killed Ko Ni.

The president's office said Lt. Col. Aung Win Khine, who retired from the army in 2014, was at large and published his photograph with a request for people to share information on his whereabouts.

Ko Ni had been well known within Aung San Suu Kyi's political party, the National League for Democracy, for his efforts to amend the constitution and write a new one. Before being killed, he had been drafting a constitution that would have stripped the military of its powers and would have established peace agreements with armed ethnic groups.

"If the military still focuses on protecting its interests, it will be impossible to change any part of the constitution within parliament," he said last year during an interview with a Burmese newspaper.

"That's why writing a new one is the best way to pursue a democratic constitution."

At least two suspects related to the killing are already in custody: Kyi Lin, accused of shooting Ko Ni, and Aung Win Zaw, 46, the elder brother of Lt. Col. Aung Win Khine.

Aung Win Zaw is also a former lieutenant with the Myanmar army, but the president's office did not mention that at the time of his arrest, leading to accusations that it was withholding information.

"All people know here suspect Aung Win Zaw is an ex-army officer," said Sai Tun Aung Lwin, a journalist based in Yangon.

"The government and the government agencies must be transparent on the political assassination. If not, people won't know which information is true."

The political party led by Suu Kyi took power in March 2016, but it shares executive and legislature power with the military. Under the current constitution, the military controls the ministries of defence, home affairs and border affairs as well as at least 25 percent of parliamentary seats.

Her party's relationship with the military has been rocky since last fall.

"I strongly believe that those who are pro-2008 constitution killed him," Aung Moe Zaw, chairman of a political party, the Democratic Party for New Society, said Wednesday, referring to the current constitution.

"At the same time, their intention is to threaten all of us and to create instability."