Will high-profile assassination destabilize Burma’s government?

Southeast Asia | Leaders warn the murder of a prominent lawyer was designed to strike at the country’s fledgling democracy
by Anna K. Poole
Posted 2/01/17, 11:37 am

Officials in Myanmar are investigating the assassination of high-profile lawyer Ko Ni, longtime adviser to Aung San Suu Kyi and advocate for Muslim religious rights. The politician had just landed at the airport in Yangon, the country’s most populous city, when a gunman broke through the crowd and shot him at close range. 

Local police detained one suspect in connection with the murder, but the motive remains shrouded in speculation: Was it a private business dispute, political resentment, or anti-Islamic sentiment? 

No matter what prompted the attack, the country’s leaders fear it could destabilize the government.

While security forces in Burma, also known as Myanmar, are making headlines for brutality against ethnic minorities, political assassinations are rare in the Buddhist-majority country. 

Some say the slaughter of a politician is a strike at Myanmar’s fledgling democracy. 

“The motive of killing the lawyer at a public area … would be targeting firstly the [democratic] leadership, secondly political and civic leaders who want to amend the military-drafted constitution, and thirdly the peace process,” Ko Ni’s colleague U Thein Than Oo told The New York Times.  

Others claim religion motivated the assassin.

“A lot of people hate us because we have different religious beliefs,” Ko Ni’s daughter told Reuters. “I think that might be why [the assassination] happened to him, but I don’t know the reason.” 

The National League for Democracy (NLD) said Ko Ni was “irreplaceable for both Aung San Suu Kyi and the party.” An expert in Burmese constitutional law, Ko Ni won praise for his legislative dexterity and creative sidestepping of the junta-era charter’s stranglehold on elected officials. 

“Ko Ni’s murder demonstrates the precarious position in which Myanmar finds itself today as rising intolerance threatens the success of much-heralded reforms,” said Charles Santiago, chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Parliamentarians for Human Rights. 

Meanwhile, Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims continue to face systematic persecution, with the latest outbreak now in its third month. A religious and ethnic minority, the Rohingyas have long been unwelcome in the Buddhist nation. But in recent months, reports of mounting violence have raised significant alarm among international human rights groups. Some have hinted Myanmar’s razing of western Rakhine state—where 1 million Rohingyas live—is “ethnic cleansing” or “genocide.” 

But Buddhists and government officials say military action that reportedly includes torching homes and assaulting women is a measured crackdown on a Muslim insurgency. With journalists and humanitarian workers barred from Rakhine, reports are difficult to confirm. 

North of Rakhine, bitter violence between the Burmese military and guerrilla fighters is also in its third month, with the national army launching heavy artillery attacks and airstrikes in Christian-majority Kachin and Shan states. Kachin activists accuse the army of blocking humanitarian assistance to the area, an allegation the military denies.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Anna K. Poole

Anna is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute's mid-career course.

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