Yesterday’s horrific assassination of U Ko Ni is a severe blow to the prospects for peace and democracy in Myanmar, as well as of course a tragedy for his family. It robs the country of one of its most knowledgeable constitutional experts, the National League for Democracy (NLD) one of its most valued advisors, and the Muslim community of one of their most prominent advocates. For such an attack to occur so brazenly in broad daylight at Yangon airport, while U Ko Ni was holding his grandson and hailing a taxi, suggests a direct assault on Myanmar’s democratic transition by forces bigger than the gunman himself.
While little is known about the gunman, how he got his weapon and what his precise motives were, the gravity of this murder should not be underestimated. Whether U Ko Ni was killed in order to prevent progress towards amending the constitution, or because he was a Muslim, or both is unproven, but it raises some very important challenges for Myanmar which have been overlooked for too long. An immediate, comprehensive investigation into his assassination is vital, and the international community should be prepared to offer the government of Myanmar any assistance required.
As a lawyer, U Ko Ni was deeply involved in advocacy for constitutional reform, which was at the heart of the NLD’s election campaign in 2015. He would have been a key player alongside Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in any future negotiations and debates around amending the constitution. Although she has said little on this subject since coming into government a year ago, it must be presumed that Daw Suu still hopes to amend the constitution drafted by the military in 2008. The constitution is fatally flawed from a democratic perspective, as it reserves a quarter of the parliamentary seats for the military, gives the military direct control over three key ministries (Home Affairs, Border Affairs and Defence), grants the military immunity for past crimes, and prevents Daw Suu from becoming President. U Ko Ni was a persistent and courageous critic of the military’s involvement in politics.
Even if those most sensitive clauses were left unchallenged, the constitution would require amendments in any political settlement with the ethnic nationalities, if a truly federal system were to be negotiated. Resistance to constitutional reform not only undermines Burma’s fragile democracy but imperils any hopes of an end to decades of conflict in the ethnic states.
As a Muslim, and one of the few holding a senior position in the NLD, U Ko Ni was an outspoken voice for freedom of religion or belief and against rising Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar. His assassination may have been, at least partly, motivated by growing anti-Muslim intolerance, which has been sweeping the country over the past five years. Ever since the violence in Rakine State in 2012 and in Meikhtila in 2013, some of us have been persistently urging the government of Myanmar and the international community to take meaningful steps to tackle religious hatred, with little success. Yesterday’s murder may be, at least in part, a consequence of the world’s inaction.
In 2014, a year on from Meikhtila’s tragedy, the European Burma Network – an alliance of human rights groups across Europe – expressed concern that little was being done to tackle hate speech in Myanmar. We urged the then government to study the Rabat Plan of Action, a UN document detailing ways to tackle religious intolerance, and to examine the recommendations of the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief on hate speech. We called on the international community to significantly increase funding for initiatives that promote inter-faith harmony and understanding and counter intolerance. We recommended a high-level international conference, to be held in Burma, to bring together representatives of different religions, civil society groups and political groups, with international experts, to consider how to address Myanmar’s growing religious intolerance. “Unless greater priority is given to tackling this growing problem,” we warned, “we fear that further violence and more laws and other policies which persecute and discriminate against religious and ethnic minorities in Burma are inevitable.”
That was three years ago, and our pleas fell on deaf ears.
Two days ago Ma Ba Tha said it would resist any attempt to amend the Race and Religion Protection Laws, introduced by the previous government in 2015. These laws include restrictions on religious conversion and inter-faith marriage, but as Parliament now considers a law on the prevention of violence against women, calls for amending the race and religion laws have grown. If religion was a factor in U Ko Ni’s murder, it could have a chilling effect on this front.
Yesterday’s tragedy increases concerns for Daw Suu’s own security, and that of other political leaders and human rights defenders. It should not be forgotten that before her father Aung San’s assassination on 19 July 1947, his advisor U Tin Htut, who played a key role in the Panglong Agreement and negotiations for independence and served as the country’s first foreign minister, was murdered in a car bomb. We must hope that history does not repeat itself, but as we approach the first anniversary of the new democratic-led government, we must recognise that U Ko Ni’s assassination is a warning signal of the dark clouds that have been gathering. As they mourn, the NLD must now reflect on what to do next to address constitutional reform, ethnic conflict and religious nationalism. The international community must stand ready, with ideas, expertise and funding, to help the government. Failure to do so, through fear, prejudice or complacency, would mean that it was not only U Ko Ni who was killed yesterday, but dreams of a better, more democratic, peaceful Myanmar for all – and that is a tragedy we must prevent.
Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist and writer. He works as East Asia Team Leader at Christian Solidarity Worldwide and is the author of three books on Myanmar, including “Burma: A Nation at the Crossroads”.