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Mainstream, VOL LV No 9 New Delhi February 18, 2017

Tension Mounts with the Killing of a Lawyer in Myanmar

Tuesday 21 February 2017, by Harish Chandola

The communal tension in our neighbour Myanmar between its majority Buddhist population and its Muslim minority of Rohingyas has of late worsened. It was exacerbated by the recent assassination of a prominent Muslim lawyer and an advisor to the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD), Mr Ko Ni, while he was waiting for a taxi in broad daylight outside the busy Yangon international airport, on his return from Indonesia. He was returning from Indonesia where he had gone in a delegation to study democracy and conflict resolution and was shot in the head as he was holding in his arms his three-year-old grandson.

He was a prominent defender of religious minorities in a country seething with anti-Muslim sentiment. The climate in Myanmar had worsened since attacks on Burmese border guards last October that had been blamed on the Rohingyas, a persecuted Muslim minority. Since then the Burmese Army had taken a scorched earth approach in northern Rakhine state, home of the Rohingyas. Human rights groups and international monitors have accused the Army of burning villages and raping and murdering many of its residents.

Mr Ko Ni, who was not himself a Rohingya, had been speaking against the law that long ago stripped Rohingyas of citizenship. That made people close to the government see Rohingyas as interlopers from Bangladesh, with no rights to stay in Mynmar.

Mr Ko Ni had received threats from Buddhist extremists. One Muslim activist who preferred to remain anonymous said: “People who speak against the nationalists, those who speak the truth about the situation in Rakhine state, are not secure.”

Mr Ko Ni’s killer targeted him because of his religion and being a prominent advocate of tolerance.

Police arrested a 54-year-old named Kyi Lin, as he was fleeing after the shooting. He was chased and caught by taxi-drivers, one of whom got shot dead. Nothing much is known about the gunman. He told the police that he came from Mandalay, the country’s second city, which the police said was not true. He claimed that he was hired by a man who had promised him a car for the killing.

A ruling National League for Democracy Executive Committee member, Mr Nyan Win, said that he feared more assassinations. A constitutional expert had advised the government to reform the country’s charter imposed in 2008 after a referendum that gives vast and unaccountable power to the Army.

After Mr Ko Ni’s assassination, friends and relatives who gathered at his home in Yangon, said they were very angry. One of them said Mr Ko Ni had done much good to the country.

The author is a veteran journalist who writes on international affairs. He has written extensively on West and Central Asian developments.