Legal advisor to Aung San Suu Kyi and Myanmar government shot dead in Yangon

Yola Verbruggen

The fatal shooting of Ko Ni, a prominent lawyer and legal advisor to the Myanmar government, on Sunday, sent shockwaves through the country, where political assassinations are extremely rare.

Ko Ni was a legal advisor to Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) and a former political prisoner. He was an outspoken critic of the military’s involvement in politics and religious intolerance in his country.

His cowardly shooting on Sunday as he stood waiting for a taxi while holding his grandson in front of Yangon’s airport, his back towards the gunman, has shaken the country, going through a difficult transition marred by religious tensions.

IBA podcast on Myanmar reform, with contributors including Aung San Suu Kyi

‘The premature death of Ko Ni has deprived Myanmar of a citizen who cared deeply about, and was committed to, advancing the rule of law and progressing human rights in his country,' said Mark Ellis, Executive Director of the International Bar Association.

'He was a founding senior member of the Independent Lawyers' Association of Myanmar (ILAM), which the IBA supported in its establishment, and was instrumental in working towards bringing together different factions for a successful outcome. The ILAM will stand partly as his legacy as to what can be done when cooperation is paramount in an endeavour,' he continued.

IBA documentary on Myanmar's challenges in rule of law, foreign investment and development - Ko Ni features at 13.36

A taxi driver, Nay Win, who pursued the gunman, was also shot and later died of his injuries in a Yangon hospital. The shooter was apprehended but his motive remains unclear.

Myanmar’s ruling party has condemned the killing as a ‘terrorist act’ and called on its members to remain calm. The International Crisis Group condemned the murder as a hate crime.

‘While the motive of the attacker is not known at this time, this killing has all the appearances of a hate crime, and is of grave concern at a time of heightened communal and religious tensions in Myanmar,’ the organisation said in a statement.

Ko Ni

Ko Ni

Scores of people mourned Ko Ni at his funeral on Monday in Yangon, with some reports estimating the crowd at over 10,000 people of all faiths.

Members from his party and civil society activists fear that the motivation behind his killing is political, either linked to his opposition to the military and the constitution or related to his interfaith work.

Ko Ni was Chairman of Yangon-based Laurel Law Firm and had been working on constitutional amendments to curtail the role of the military in government and an Interfaith Harmony Bill, Reuters reported. He had also been critical of the NLD for not fielding any Muslim candidates in the 2015 election.

According to his family, Ko Ni had received death threats for the work he was doing.

‘He always said that someone had to stand for the truth. I always said something would happen to him. And he said: “People only die once. I will die doing what is right”,’ his daughter, Yin Nwe Khine, told The Guardian.

The shooting took place as Ko Ni returned from a government-sponsored trip to Indonesia to discuss sectarian strife in Myanmar. Religious tensions have been extremely high in Myanmar after deadly attacks on border police outposts in Rakhine State last October, which the army said were committed by Rohingya Muslims. The army has launched an extensive security operation to suppress the violence, causing thousands of Rohingya to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh. Human rights organisations have accused the army of committing severe human rights abuses in the area.

The Rohingya are a persecuted minority who are denied citizenship under Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law.

Ko Ni was a tireless supporter of human rights in Myanmar, particularly religious rights. This outrage is an attack on the rule of law and the whole legal profession in Myanmar

Phillip Tahmindjis, Director, IBA’s Human Rights Institute

‘The murder of Ko Ni is a tragedy.  He was a tireless supporter of human rights in Myanmar, particularly religious rights. This outrage is an attack on the rule of law and the whole legal profession in Myanmar,’ said Phillip Tahmindjis, Director of the IBA’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI).

Ko Ni played an essential role in the IBA’s work in Myanmar.

‘Ko Ni played such an instrumental role in the formation of ILAM and cooperated with the IBA many times. A great loss for his country, he will be very much missed,’ said Shirley Pouget, former Senior Programme Lawyer with the IBA, who worked extensively with Ko Ni.

Several rights groups have called for an investigation into Ko Ni’s death. UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, also condemned the murder.

‘Ko Ni’s passing is a tremendous loss to human rights defenders and for Myanmar. The State Counsellor and the NLD-led government must get to the bottom of this senseless act, and give answers to his family and to us all,’ Lee said in a statement.

With Myanmar’s transition still in process, Ko Ni’s skills will be sorely missed, said Janelle Saffin, an Australian former politician and lawyer who has previously lectured and published on constitutional law within Myanmar.

‘He loved his family, his country, the NLD and the law. He desired and advocated constitutional change as did many across the country. He spoke out loudly in keeping with his larger than life spirit and stature,’ she told the IBA.

Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, Co-Chair of the IBAHRI, expressed deep concern about the killing. ‘I was utterly shocked at the news. I had met Ko Ni and knew he was working hard to engender respect for human rights, particularly religious freedom in Myanmar. An independent judiciary and an independent legal profession are vital to the rule of law and democracy. The protection of lawyers is a vital duty of the state. Myanmar is still in the process of transition and its justice system is fragile. We must all express our alarm and despondency at this event and press the Myanmar government to take this very seriously indeed,’ she said.

Ko Ni was 63 years old.

Yola Verbruggen is the IBA's Multimedia Journalist and can be contacted at yola.verbruggen@int-bar.org