Thousands of mourners have gathered to bury a prominent Burmese Muslim lawyer whose murder has raised fresh fears of renewed political instability in Myanmar and highlighted the continuing persecution of Muslims in the Buddhist-majority country.
Ko Ni, 65 – a legal adviser to Aung San Suu Kyi – was shot in the head on Sunday evening at the international airport in Yangon, the country’s commercial capital, as he hailed a taxi after returning from a government-organised trip to Indonesia, where delegates discussed religious issues.
His distraught relatives were joined by senior figures from the ruling National League for Democracy, imams, Buddhist monks and members of the public who crammed into a Muslim cemetery on the outskirts of Yangon for the funeral on Monday afternoon.
Following Ko Ni’s death, police have named the alleged shooter but no motive has been given.
A widely respected expert in constitutional law, Ko Ni was a powerful voice within the ruling National League for Democracy against the continued power of the military, which retains a grip over key institutions. He also helped draft a hate speech law and spoke out for the rights of minorities including persecuted Rohingya Muslims, tens of thousands of whom have fled to Bangladesh in recent months following security operations on the western border.
Tin Tin Aye (centre), the widow of Ko Ni, and their daughter (centre left).
Tin Tin Aye (centre), the widow of Ko Ni, and their daughter (centre left). Photograph: Paing Aung/AFP/Getty Images
Family and friends said Ko Ni had received death threats from Buddhist nationalist groups critical of his influence and close relationship with Aung San Suu Kyi.
“He always said that someone had to stand for the truth,” his daughter, Yin Nwe Khine, said. “I always said something would happen to him. And he said: ‘People only die once. I will die doing what is right.’”
At a vigil outside his home in Yangon on Sunday night, friends and neighbours cautiously blamed “anti-government” groups who they said seek to stoke religious violence and undermine the democratic transition. Tensions between Muslim and Buddhist communities have been heightened since an outbreak of violence in Rakhine state in October blamed on Rohingya insurgents prompted a massive security operation.
‘It will blow up’: fears Myanmar’s deadly crackdown on Muslims will spiral out of control
“We have told our community to remain silent,” said one Muslim NLD member who asked to remain anonymous. “There is nothing to be gained from this.”
Nyunt Maung Shein, chairman of the Islamic Religious Affairs Council, suggested Ko Ni had been killed as a consequence of his legal advice.
“U Ko Ni was advising about the democratic transition period,” he said. “So this is done by those who don’t want to have this transition.”
In a statement on Sunday, the NLD described Ko Ni as irreplaceable. “We strongly denounce the assassination of Ko Ni as it is a terrorist act against the NLD’s policies,” it said.
Speaking to Channel News Asia, Nyan Win, a member of the NLD’s central executive committee, said he feared further political killings could follow.
“That this can happen to people like U Ko Ni means that it can happen to everyone else in the country,” said human rights activist Wai Wai Nu, who is Rohingya. “I feel so frustrated and frightened. I feel very worried about the future of the country.”
Human rights groups called for a thorough independent investigation into the killing.
“U Ko Ni’s murder demonstrates the precarious position in which Myanmar finds itself today as rising intolerance threatens the success of much heralded reforms,” Charles Santiago, chair of Asean [Association of South-east Asian Nations] Parliamentarians for Human Rights, said in a statement.
“The dangers posed by hate speech and extreme nationalism are real and must be countered if Myanmar is to move forward and successfully develop into the peaceful and vibrant democracy its people deserve.”
AFP contributed to this report