Tin Tin Aye grieves after the assassination of her husband, the Muslim lawyer Ko Ni, in January. Hundreds of Rohingya Muslims have been killed in Myanmar in recent years.
Whenever I met with Ko Ni, whether seated in his office, with its flickering electricity and precarious piles of law books, or sipping tea in the moldering headquarters of Myanmar’s then-opposition political party, the image that came to mind was that of Atticus Finch—though an Atticus wearing a Burmese sarong. With his salt-and-pepper hair and upright bearing, Ko Ni was the consummate honorable lawyer. He persevered for decades as one of Myanmar’s top constitutional experts despite living under the rule of a military junta with little respect for judicial process. Every day, he woke up and prepared to throw himself, pro bono, into hopeless cases. One day in his office, I saw a stack of papers at the foot of his desk. On top was a copy of the Bulgarian Constitution. You never know, he said, when knowledge of such a document might prove useful.
On January 29th, Ko Ni, sixty-three years old, was assassinated at the airport in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city. He had just returned from a democracy conference in Indonesia and was waiting for a taxi curbside, while holding his young grandson, when a gunman in sandals sauntered up and pumped a bullet into Ko Ni’s head at close range. Nay Win, a taxi driver who tried to chase down the assassin, was also shot to death. (Ko Ni’s grandson, who had come with relatives to greet his grandfather, tumbled out of the lawyer’s arms but was unhurt.)
Before his assassination, Ko Ni, a prominent member of Myanmar’s Muslim minority, was a legal adviser to the country’s ruling National League for Democracy. PHOTOGRAPH BY PHYO THIHA CHO / REUTERS / ALAMY
As a senior legal adviser to the National League for Democracy, or N.L.D., which is the party of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Prize laureate and advocate for democracy, Ko Ni certainly had enemies. He had called for amending, or even rewriting, Myanmar’s Constitution, to reduce the power of the military that had drafted it in the first place. He was also a Muslim, a faith that makes up less than five per cent of the population in Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist nation. Being a Muslim in Myanmar has proved perilous in recent years, particularly in the country’s far western Rakhine state, where hundreds of Rohingya, a Muslim ethnicity largely stripped of citizenship, have been killed, and hundreds of thousands more displaced. A February report by the United Nations accused Burmese security forces of having unleashed a campaign of mass murder, torture, and rape late last year. On March 2nd, Yanghee Lee, the U.N.’s special rapporteur for human rights, reiterated that pogroms against the Rohingya “may amount to crimes against humanity.” Anti-Muslim violence has also flared outside of Rakhine, in places where Burmese of various faiths had long lived in harmony.
Ko Ni had received death threats from Burmese ultranationalists, who equate protecting Buddhism—and therefore denigrating Islam—with their patriotic duty. A statement from the Myanmar President’s Office identified the lawyer’s assassin as Kyi Lin, a former prisoner who was allegedly paid less than six thousand dollars by three former military officers to carry out the murder. On February 25th, Myanmar’s home-affairs minister, Lieutenant General Kyaw Swe, blamed “extreme patriotism” for motivating the purported conspirators, although he bristled at a suggestion that a perversion of faith, as preached by nationalist monks, might have played a hand in Ko Ni’s death. “How can we say the monks killed him?” Kyaw Swe said, according to the Irrawaddy, a Burmese news site. “Our Buddhism never encourages killing.”
Among his accomplishments, Ko Ni helped devise a path to power for Suu Kyi, whose party won the election in 2015 that ushered in Myanmar’s quasi-civilian rule. The country is bound by a constitution, designed by the military, that bars the N.L.D.’s Suu Kyi from the Presidency. (A clause, seemingly written just for her, forbids anyone with foreign spouses or children from the post; Suu Kyi’s sons, like her late husband, are British.) It was Ko Ni’s legal ingenuity that helped the N.L.D. devise a new position of State Counsellor for Suu Kyi, through which she would, according to her own words, hover, deity-like, “above the President.” Myanmar’s President, Htin Kyaw, is a loyal N.L.D. stalwart, but there is no doubt that the country’s State Counsellor, who also holds the titles of Foreign Minister and Minister for the President’s Office, runs the nation.
Despite Ko Ni’s decades supporting Myanmar’s democracy movement, Suu Kyi, who spent fifteen years under house arrest under the generals’ orders, did not speak out—in shock, sadness, or even acknowledgement—in the days after his assassination. Nor did she attend his funeral, which drew thousands of Burmese of all religions. Her silence echoed her reticence on the plight of the Rohingya, who, since a military offensive began in October, have fled over the border to Bangladesh by the tens of thousands. That the Rohingya consider the impoverished neighbor to be a refuge reflects a measure of their misery.
The military rulers, who took power in a coup in 1962, justified their brutal regime by exploiting ethnic differences. They promised to crush ethnic rebel armies proliferating in Myanmar’s borderlands, and vowed to return Burma, as the country was once known, to its Burman, or Bamar, roots. The colonial British adopted open immigration policies—Bengalis, Sikhs, Tamils, Gujaratis, and Punjabis flooded in—which made the Bamar a minority in Yangon, their onetime capital. As the junta’s xenophobia deepened, droves of Muslims, along with others of long-ago foreign extraction, left. Islamophobia now festers.
During the 2015 elections, the N.L.D. failed to field a single Muslim candidate. It was not for lack of choice. Muslims in Myanmar, many of whom migrated during the days of the British Raj, have long played a prominent role in business, medicine, law, and the civil service. Yet today, for the first time since the country’s independence from the British in 1948, Myanmar’s parliament has no Muslim members. In 2014, the N.L.D. cancelled a speech that Ko Ni was scheduled to deliver, after protests by Buddhist nationalists. “The N.L.D. doesn’t want to be accused of being friends of Muslims,” Kin Maung Cho, a Muslim lawyer and former political prisoner, told me on the eve of the 2015 elections. (He ran as part of a Muslim party but, like all others in his group, lost.)
The N.L.D.’s decision to exclude Muslims has been explained as political expediency. Myanmar’s military still controls powerful ministries, along with a quarter of parliamentary seats, so Suu Kyi lacks complete political authority. “She dares not say anything against the military,” Kin Maung Cho wrote to me in an e-mail on March 6th. It was nearly a month after Ko Ni’s killing before Suu Kyi finally broke her silence. At a memorial service held by her political party on February 26th, in Yangon, she called his death “a great loss for our N.L.D.” The slain taxi driver, Nay Win, and Ko Ni, she proclaimed, were “martyrs.” The same day, Wirathu, an ultranationalist monk who has referred to Muslims as “dogs” (and who told me, in 2013, that Barack Obama was “tainted by black Muslim blood”), posted on Facebook his gratitude to the suspects in Ko Ni’s assassination. “At this time, I feel relief for the future of Buddhism in my country,” he wrote, according to a translation by the Irrawaddy.
On March 3rd, I spoke by phone with Wai Wai Nu, a Rohingya lawyer in Yangon who was arrested when she was eighteen years old and spent seven years in jail. Her entire nuclear family cycled through prison for their political activism, including her father, who had been elected to parliament in Rakhine in elections in 1990 that were never honored by the junta. (Most Rohingya were disenfranchised in the polls in 2015.) Prison in Myanmar is about as bleak as prison gets, but upon her release in 2012 Wai Wai Nu consistently spoke out, even as some other political activists, including Bamar ones, ended up behind bars. “Daw Aung San Suu Kyi needs to speak for all the people of Burma who are vulnerable,” she told me. “Then U Ko Ni will be happy. Then I will be happy.” (“Daw” is a female honorific, “U” a male one.) In recent days, Wai Wai Nu has begun limiting her public activities in Yangon. Death threats have appeared by e-mail. Given what happened to Ko Ni, prudence seems warranted. “Hopefully,” Wai Wai Nu said over the crackly phone line, “everything will be O.K.”