Myanmar's democratic transition

Lawyer’s assassination must be a wake-up call for Myanmar

U Ko Ni’s killing cannot be allowed to halt the reform process with the goals of peace and prosperity only to be attained by the diverse population pragmatically finding compromise to settle differences

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 February, 2017, 1:19am
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 February, 2017, 1:19am

The prospects for Myanmar’s democratic transition have been dimming. But the assassination of an influential figure in the movement, Muslim lawyer U Ko Ni, represents a worrying turn. His killing highlights the vulnerability of officials like leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the divisions in society and the resistance of the once-ruling military to change. His death need not be in vain, though; instead, it has to be the catalyst that brings together disparate sides whose inability to compromise has prevented aspirations from being realised.

Why Ko Ni was killed remains unclear, although any number viewed him as troublesome. A well-known Muslim in a Buddhist-majority country, a leading proponent of the rule of law and constitutional reform and the legal adviser to Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy government, he was a thorn in the side of those with vested interests. His assassination was nonetheless shocking, being carried out at the nation’s main airport and captured in pictures that have been widely circulated on social media. One image, of him holding his grandson with the unsuspected gunman standing behind, is chilling proof of the threats to those seeking genuine democracy.

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

The military’s pledge of democratic rule and elections that brought democracy icon Suu Kyi to power brought hope of change. But Ko Ni contended that could not happen without reform or even scrapping of the constitution, which had been drafted by the armed forces to ensure it retained an important role in government. He has largely been proved right. While the majority has gained unprecedented freedoms, the democratic transition has sputtered along with the economy, dialogue with ethnic armed groups having faltered and violence on the northern border with China and against Muslim Rohingyas in Rakhine state forcing tens of thousands from their homes.

But Ko Ni’s killing cannot be allowed to halt the reform process. Rather, it has to be a wake-up call. The goals of peace and prosperity will be attained only by Myanmar’s diverse population pragmatically finding compromise to settle differences.