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Myanmar's democratic transition

Prominent Muslim lawyer gunned down at Yangon’s international airport as he hailed taxi

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 January, 2017, 9:51pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 January, 2017, 11:25pm

A prominent Muslim lawyer and member of Myanmar’s ruling party was shot dead along with a taxi driver outside Yangon’s international airport on Sunday, officials said.

Ko Ni, a member of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party, was gunned down as he got into a taxi outside arrivals around 5pm by an assassin who also killed the driver.

“According to our initial information, Ko Ni and the taxi driver were killed,” a security source at the airport said, asking not to be named.

“An unknown man shot him in the head while he was hiring a taxi. He was later arrested,” the source added.

Zaw Htay, a spokesman at the president’s office, said Ko Ni had just returned from a government delegation trip to Indonesia.

“He (Ko Ni) was shot while he was waiting for a car outside the airport. Ko Ni died on the spot,” he said.

A friend of Ko Ni who witnessed the shooting said the suspected assassin also shot the taxi driver who tried to stop him from fleeing.

“As I stopped my car by the airport, that’s where I saw Ko Ni’s body lying on the walkway outside of the airport and I couldn’t believe that just happened,” said Thet Paing Soe, a friend and an NLD supporter. “Then as the shooter tried to run away, the police arrested him.”

The Ministry of Information identified the suspect as Kyi Linn from Mandalay. The motive was not known.

Ko Ni was a Burmese Muslim and as a practicing lawyer had handled more than 900 criminal cases and more than 1,400 civil cases.

In 1995, he established Laurel Law Firm with two other advocates.

“It is a big loss for us that Ko Ni, our beloved friend, has been killed. He is the face of the democracy in our country and this is a big loss for us,” said Kyee Myint, a former chairman of the Myanmar Lawyer Network who has a close relationship with Ko Ni.

Myanmar’s border regions have simmered for decades with ethnic minority insurgencies.

Yet it is rare for prominent political figures to be murdered in Yangon, the country’s booming and largely safe commercial hub.

But in recent years Myanmar has witnessed a surge of anti-Muslim sentiment, fanned by hardline Buddhist nationalists.

Ko Ni, a long time member of the NLD and legal advisor to the party, often spoke out in favour of religious tolerance and pluralism.

In late 2015 Suu Kyi’s NLD party won a landslide election victory, ending decades of military led rule.

But in what analysts widely saw as a sop to Buddhist hardliners the party fielded no Muslim candidates, despite boasting many prominent Muslim figures in its ranks.

Suu Kyi has also faced international censure for her failure to criticise an ongoing army crackdown against the Muslim Rohingya minority in western Rakhine state.

Since the launch of the crackdown in October at least 66,000 Rohingya have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh alleging security forces are carrying out a campaign of rape, torture and mass killings.

The treatment of the Rohingya, a stateless group denied citizenship in Myanmar, has galvanised anger across the Muslim world.

Many among Myanmar’s Buddhist majority call them Bengalis - shorthand for illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh - even though many have lived in Myanmar for generations.

Agence France-Presse, Associated Press