Two years after the public assassination of National League of Democracy (NLD) legal adviser U Ko Ni, the ongoing trial of the alleged murderers and the disappearance of the suspected mastermind have cast a dark cloud that still lingers over Myanmar’s democratic transition.
The 63-year-old lawyer and human rights advocate’s murder at Yangon International Airport on the afternoon of Jan. 29, 2017, has had a stifling effect on the slow transition from military rule, analysts say, crippling nascent institutions that were only beginning to find their footing.
U Ko Ni was carrying his 2-year-old grandson when a lone gunman approached him from behind and shot him once in the back of the head.
“U Ko Ni’s assassination was a shock for many and has had a chilling effect — on the government and the NLD, on lawyers, and on various minority groups,” Melissa Crouch, associate professor at University of New South Wales and expert on Myanmar law told Coconuts Yangon.
Releasing a statement today, the International Commission of Jurists, an advocacy group for justice and human rights, called for a thorough and impartial investigation on the second anniversary of the killing.
“This brazen killing of a prominent democracy advocate demands a rigorous State response to show this type of crime will be fully punished,” said Frederick Rawski, the ICJ’s director for Asia and the Pacific.
While a verdict is due in just three days, the trial and investigation have been plagued by charges of foot-dragging by critics, who also question why more hasn’t been done to locate the killing’s mastermind abroad.
For her part, Crouch believes any “high hopes” harbored for the trial would be “misplaced.”
“It is clear that the courts have delayed and prolonged the trial in the face of some pretty clear evidence,” she said.
“The [Reuters] case is another example of how political trials will never get a fair hearing in an atmosphere where the courts are subordinate to the military. It is not just judicial independence generally that is necessary in Myanmar, but judicial independence from the military specifically.”
U Ko Ni was an outspoken advocate of freedom of religion and constitutional reform, as well as a fierce and consistent critic of the Myanmar military’s entanglement in politics.
It’s also fair to say that Aung San Suu Kyi would not occupy her current position without his help. Banned from taking the country’s presidency, it was U Ko Ni who found the constitutional loopholes that allowed the NLD leader to ascend to her role of State Counselor, a position that gives her de facto control over the Foreign Affairs Ministry and President’s Office.
As one of the few Muslims in a senior position in the NLD, he spoke out against rising Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar and advocated for freedom of religion.
While Myanmar’s home affairs minister dismissed suggestions that Buddhist nationalists had a hand in the killing of U Ko Ni, the firebrand ultra-nationalist monk U Wirathu, dubbed the Burmese Bin-Laden, publicly thanked the suspects for the killing on social media.
Yangon’s Northern District court is expected to deliver a verdict in the case on Friday, after listening to final arguments by defense lawyers.