Thousands attend funeral of murdered Myanmar Muslim lawyer

Thousands of mourners gathered on Monday to bury a top Muslim lawyer and adviser to Aung San Suu Kyi, who was gunned down outside Yangon airport in what the ruling party called a political assassination.

Ko Ni, a legal adviser to the National League for Democracy, was shot in the head on Sunday afternoon as he waited outside the airport while holding his grandson.

U Ko Ni’s grandson is held by his mother at Yay Way Cemetery. U Ko Ni was holding his grandson when he was shot. Photo: Jacob Goldberg

His killing, in a country where political murders are rare, sent shockwaves through both Myanmar’s already hard-pressed Muslim community and the ruling party.

Police have not said what prompted the murder. Ko Ni, 63, was a prominent Muslim figure who spoke out against the increasingly vocal anti-Islamic sentiments of Buddhist hardliners and criticised the powerful military’s grip on power.

Distraught relatives were joined by senior NLD figures, imams, Buddhist monks and members of the public who crammed into a Muslim cemetery on the outskirts of Yangon on Monday afternoon.

“This is a very cruel and ugly tragedy,” Moe Zaw, a 37-year-old Muslim mourner, told AFP.

Both the NLD and Ko Ni’s family suspect he was targeted because of his politics, with the ruling party describing the murder as a “terrorist act”.

Visitors arrived at the funeral with NLD flags. Photo: Jacob Goldberg

The country’s de facto leader Suu Kyi has yet to comment on the killing. 

But the office of her appointed president Htin Kyaw described the murder as an attempt to “destroy the stability of the state” and appealed for calm. 

A taxi driver who tried to stop the gunman was also killed. The attacker, named by police as 53-year-old Kyi Lin, was arrested at the scene.  

A harrowing photo circulating on social media showed what appeared to be the moment the gunman, standing behind Ko Ni as he held his grandson, took aim. 

His daughter Yin Nwe Khaing said she brought her young son to greet his grandfather at the airport, adding her father had made enemies because he had been a prominent Muslim voice. 

“As we are from a different religion there were many people who didn’t like and hated it. I think that also could be a reason (for his murder),” she told DVB TV.

Anti-Muslim sentiment

Ko Ni had just returned from a government delegation visit to Indonesia where regional leaders were discussing sectarian tensions in Rakhine state.

Myanmar’s army has waged a crackdown on the mainly Muslim Rohingya community in the state, which has prompted tens of thousands of them to flee the area.

Ko Ni had previously criticised religious laws pushed by Buddhist nationalists. 

A mourner weeps at U Ko Ni’s funeral. Photo: Jacob Goldberg

Myanmar’s border regions have simmered for decades with ethnic minority insurgencies but it is rare for prominent political figures to be murdered in Yangon, the country’s booming and largely safe commercial hub.

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

Around five percent of Myanmar’s population is Muslim.

Mourners write messages in memory of U Ko Ni after the funeral. Photo: Jacob Goldberg

Suu Kyi has herself faced criticism for not fielding a single Muslim candidate during the 2015 elections, a move which analysts said was a sop to Buddhist hardliners.

She has also faced international censure for her failure to criticise the crackdown on the Rohingya in Rakhine.

Since its launch 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. 

Suu Kyi and the military have denied allegations of abuse.

U Ko Ni’s grave. Photo: Jacob Goldberg

The office of Myanmar’s powerful army chief said the military would offer its full support in the probe into the shooting. 

“As this tragedy could seriously harm security, the army will cooperate with security organisations to arrest any culprits soonest and reveal the truth,” a statement said. 

The International Crisis Group, a think-tank that has previously sounded the alarm over rising religious intolerance in Myanmar, said the killing “underlines the urgency of the Myanmar government and society coming together to condemn all forms of hate speech”. 

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