The murder of prominent Muslim lawyer U Ko Ni in Myanmar represents far more than a mere threat to individual safety in a country struggling to find its way. It is also a blow to the nation's fledgling structure of human-rights protections and to democracy itself.
A gunman identified as Kyi Lin allegedly shot the lawyer at short range at Yangon International Airport on January 29, ending the life of a man who had, often at great personal risk, long defended people unable to defend themselves.
U Ko Ni was gunned down while holding a child in his arms. The alleged killer, promptly arrested, has not explained his motivation.
Police last week arrested a purported accomplice, Aung Win Zaw, on a Salween River bridge in Karen state. Local news media reported that the pair had collaborated criminally in the past and that both have spent time in prison.
While the investigation has thus far produced no clear motive in what appears to be an assassination plot, Myanmar's ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) - to which U Ko Ni served as an adviser - believes he was targeted for political reasons. The slain man's family concurs. The NLD has called his murder a "terrorist act", with President Htin Kyaw's office appealing for calm in the wake of an attempt to "destroy the stability of the state".
The fact that U Ko Ni was a Muslim has predictably driven speculation that his killing is linked to ongoing tensions with the country's Buddhist majority that have seen Muslims there, and particularly the Rohingya, singled out for harassment and violence.
U Ko Ni's murder took place as he was returning home with a government delegation that had been in Indonesia for a regional discussion on the sectarian woes in northeastern Rakhine state, where most of the Rohingya live. The lawyer was known to have challenged discriminatory legislation proposed by Buddhist nationalists, but there is no clear indication that his own faith was a factor in his murder. He advised state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, the country's de facto leader, on constitutional matters and issues involving rights, but did not overtly champion Islam.
Whatever motivated the crime, the authorities cannot allow speculation to unnecessarily complicate the situation. They can counter the spread of potentially dangerous suspicions by ensuring that the investigation is as transparent as possible and determining the real motives beyond question. Unjustified speculation and deceit can only aggravate the already dire circumstances in the country and fuel inter-faith conflict.
If the investigation can proceed openly and without prejudice, Suu Kyi's government should be able to focus on establishing rule of law based on democratic principles so long absent during decades of military dictatorship.
The rule of law is essential not just in the case of U Ko Ni, but also for the lasting benefit of a country where enforcement of the law has infamously been arbitrary and where rights are routinely violated.
If given a strong foundation and respected by the government, the generals and the citizenry, the rule of law would be a fitting monument to the memory of U Ko Ni. He respected the law, lived by the law, and facilitated and assisted others under the law - only to become a victim of lawlessness.
It was U Ko Ni who found the legal means by which Suu Kyi could assume key positions in the cabinet despite manoeuvring by the military. It would be most appropriate if she were now to repay that debt and honour him by finally giving Myanmar the bedrock rule of law it so desperately needs.
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