From the Archive

A Year after U Ko Ni’s Assassination, Still No Answers

By Aung Zaw 27 January 2018

Nearly a year on, we are no closer to finding out whose orders Kyi Lin was following when he gunned down U Ko Ni, a prominent legal adviser to National League for Democracy leader and State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi at Yangon International Airport on Jan. 29, 2017. To mark the anniversary, The Irrawaddy revisits this article from February 2017 reflecting on the political implications of the killing.

The brazen killing of prominent legal advisor to the National League for Democracy and its leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi not only sent shock waves through the country, but also a signal: you could be next.

Will we find out who really killed U Ko Ni? The assassin, Kyi Lin, who was caught just minutes after the killing, has a long criminal record and is believed to be a hired gunman. Under former President Thein Sein’s government, thousands of criminals were released from prisons under several amnesties and Kyi Lin was one of them.

Since last week, a manhunt has been underway and several unidentified people have been summoned and interrogated by law enforcement regarding potential connections to U Ko Ni’s killing. Some suspects have been put under surveillance, but police have remained tight lipped. The public has unleashed criticism and anger toward the authorities; this is a high profile case and security forces will be held accountable if they cannot find any hard evidence linking suspects to the murder.

The President’s Office announced on Friday that police had apprehended another reported conspirator, Aung Win Zaw, in Hpa-an, Karen State, on Monday after he had fled from Rangoon. Myanmar Now reported that he is a former military officer who was kicked out of the army for breaking martial laws. He was also involved in the smuggling of Buddha statues and spent a jail term with Kyi Lin in Mandalay’s Obo Prison.

Sources said that police are still hunting for a 50-year-old man named Myint Swe, who may have allegedly hired Kyi Lin to shoot the lawyer.Conspiracy theories abound, but if powerful figures were involved in the killing, some speculate that the mastermind behind the murder will never be brought to justice.

On Monday, Jan. 30, the office of the Burmese President, U Htin Kyaw, said in a statement that the attack had been carried out to undermine the country’s stability, suggesting a political motive. Lawyer U Ko Ni had been trying to write a new Constitution to replace Burma’s existing military-drafted one.

It is not certain whether Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was in agreement with his proposal. But political observers have said that it was U Ko Ni who came up with the bold proposition to create the position of State Counselor for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who was barred from the Presidency.

It remains worrying that more than one week after U Ko Ni’s killing, neither police and security forces nor the government—which has strongly advocated for adherence to the rule of law—has held a press briefing on the incident.

The army published a brief press release on Jan. 30 and sent a Rangoon regional commander to meet U Ko Ni’s family members. But public criticism and frustration have mounted as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has refrained from making any public statement, let alone from sending condolences to the lawyer’s bereaved family. Inside sources have said that she was shocked by U Ko Ni’s death and has instructed her aides, as well as officials in the home affairs ministry, to investigate the killing and bring the culprit to justice.

Former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, who has visited Burma twice in recent months in his capacity as head of the Arakan State Advisory Commission, urged authorities to carry out an investigation as quickly as is possible.

It is now known that U Ko Ni received death threats before he was killed. It is likely that his assassins followed him and studied his social media page, where he often posted pictures from his overseas visits.

As U Ko Ni and a government delegation returned from a two-week trip to Indonesia, Kyi Lin was believed to have been tipped off as the delegation disembarked the plane. He was waiting at the gate as U Ko Ni arrived to see his family. So it is assumed that the assassin was told minutes in advance of U Ko Ni’s movements—passing through immigration, the baggage claim and the arrivals gate. Kyi Lin then executed his deadly mission.
It is very unlikely that he could have acted alone.

It is still unknown how Kyi Lin acquired the nine-millimeter pistol used to kill U Ko Ni. News reports have said that an ex-convict was approached by Aung Win Zaw to kill a foreign diplomat, but no details further details on this point are currently known. The ex-prisoner told local media that he had turned down the offer.

Political pundits have speculated that assassins were told to kill U Ko Ni in broad daylight so as to create fear and to send a message. Some extreme elements with vested interests in the country and its politics have been mentioned as suspects. But if they are themselves powerful figures or have close ties to other such individuals in the country, then history suggests that the family of U Ko Ni will not likely see the mastermind of the murder apprehended and sentenced in accordance with the law. In this fragile transition, justice is not guaranteed.

Aung Zaw is the founding editor-in-chief of The Irrawaddy.