In Person

Dateline Irrawaddy: ‘The Government Deliberately Imposed a News Blackout so People Could Not Make Heads or Tails of What Was Happening’

By The Irrawaddy 25 February 2017

Ye Ni: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week, we’ll discuss and analyze official statements regarding the assassination of lawyer U Ko Ni, which have attracted public attention. U Swe Win, chief reporter of the Myanmar Now news agency and writer and journalist Daw Mon Mon Myat will join me for the discussion. I’m Irrawaddy Burmese editor Ye Ni.

As you know, it has now been more than three weeks since U Ko Ni was assassinated. The President’s Office has so far released three statements. According to the latest statement, former lieutenant colonel [of the Burma Army] Aung Win Khaing paid his brother Aung Win Zaw and assassin Kyi Lin to kill the lawyer. Local media outlets have continued to report on the case in response to queries by the members of the public. People, however, are not satisfied with the government’s statements and speculate that there is a mastermind behind the assassination. Ma Mon Mon Myat, are you satisfied with the government’s handling of the case?

Mon Mon Myat: Frankly speaking, I’m quite disappointed that the government didn’t release sufficient information three weeks after the assassination. The first statement from the President’s Office stated that the case was specifically related to the stability of the country. Because we felt that the assassination was carried out with the intention of disrupting the stability of the country, there was a need for members of the public to be informed. We expected more detailed statements or a press conference.

The government released the first statement one day after the assassination, the second statement a week later and the third statement about two weeks later. The information in the statements was not sufficient to satisfy the public. I’m quite disappointed with it. [Patron] U Tin Oo of the National League for Democracy [NLD] also expressed his disappointment. We feel like [the government] is buying time.

There were similar cases under the military regime. This has aroused suspicion that the government is trying to sell a story and stall so the mastermind can get away. Journalists and reporters have tried to gather as much information as possible from any possible sources because we can no longer expect that the ministry related to security can handle it alone.

People cannot wait to be informed about the assassination plot. The media and the public are searching for more information both on social media and from other sources in order to assist the concerned ministry.

YN: The government’s handling of the case has been incompetent from the very beginning. Only because of taxi drivers was Kyi Lin arrested, and the involvement of Aung Win Khaing was not thoroughly exposed.

According to the latest statement from the President’s Office, Aung Win Khaing has become the main suspect. But he has already escaped. And the statement only said that police were in hot pursuit of the fugitive, but did not issue a “wanted” notice against him. So, there have been many questions about the government’s treatment of the case. The statement suggests that the case ends with Aung Win Khaing. If Aun Win Khaing is not found, then the case has to be closed.

It seems that we have to accept the government’s theory about the case and the consequential trial. Ko Swe Win, as you have been investigating the case and found out about Ko Aung Soe [who rejected the job to kill U Ko Ni], do you think the government’s theory and handling of the case are acceptable?

Swe Win: We don’t fully understand the police and investigation procedures so we cannot point out their shortcomings scientifically. But as an ordinary citizen who is closely monitoring the case, we are not at all satisfied with the government’s handling of it.

Firstly, regarding the [Rangoon] airport CCTV records, there were other suspicious people apart from Aung Win Khaing. The government did not release information about them and still has not. And it released the statement about Aung Win Khaing too late. It was released 17 days after the assassination.

I also found it interesting that Aung Win Zaw, who is Aung Win Khaing’s elderly brother, was arrested the morning of Jan. 30, 12 hours after the assassination. But it then took 16 days to release information about his younger brother. The police already had clear CCTV images. So why did it take so long to get information from Aung Win Zaw about his brother? The government has a responsibility to explain this to the public. I find no reason for the government to keep it a secret. Considering things like the government not releasing the complete CCTV footage, I think the government and authorities were not so honest in handling the case.

Regarding the release of information, it was more than a habitual reluctance to publish the news. I would say they deliberately imposed a news blackout so that people could not make heads or tails of what was happening.

For example, regarding Aung Win Zaw, there have been many rumors about his character—people say that he was imprisoned for extramarital affairs and is a former military officer. Others say that drugs and gems were seized from his house. Don’t people have the right to know about his background? If he is a former military officer, we should be informed. But the government did not disclose this. And we know nothing about the police chase or how Aung Win Khaing escaped from the airport.

Four or five days before the government released the third statement, we already had pictures of the car that supposedly took Aung Win Zaw away from the airport. The license plate number of the car in our pictures matches that of the car in CCTV records.

People were not informed about how Aung Win Khaing escaped from the airport. And how many more suspects are wanted by the police? There should at least be a number. Two? Four? How many? Police say nothing about the number of suspects. The way the government has presented the case to the public suggests that if Aung Win Khaing is not arrested, no more suspects can be identified. This is totally unacceptable.

Aung Win Khaing and Aung Win Zaw are not strangers, but blood brothers. Aung Win Zaw is the elder brother and suppose both of them served in the military, Aung Win Zaw should be senior to him. It is quite unlikely that a man would work as a contract killer for his younger brother. It is nonsense and totally unacceptable to people with common sense. So, what did they find out from Aung Win Zaw and why didn’t they make public? Why didn’t they release the pictures of other suspects from the CCTV cameras? I would ask if the government is afraid that those suspects will be arrested if the pictures are released.

YN: It has been nearly a month now [since the assassination]. But the government still has not held a press conference and has not provided the information that people want to know. People have questioned the motive behind the assassination. Lawyer U Ko Ni was a strong advocate for reforming the 2008 Constitution, and he was a Muslim. People speculate that he was targeted for both reasons. But this is just speculation. We have not yet heard anything from the government about the motive behind the assassination. What is your assessment, Ma Mon Mon Myat?

MMM: There have bitter attacks against U Ko Ni for years, stemming either from personal hatred or religious intolerance against U Ko Ni. According Ko Aung Soe’s investigation, the crime was organized and the assassination was plotted last year. A group had been plotting to kill U Ko Ni, but we do not know who was involved in that group.

I am sure there is a group that harbored a grudge against U Ko Ni. Why did they harbor grudge against him? The answer is simple. As Ko Ye Ni has said, killing U Ko Ni was like killing three birds with one stone. It could disrupt the stability of the country, trigger racial and religious conflict, and tarnish the image of the government. His death was also a serious loss for the NLD as he was a tower of strength for them. Killing such a person can create a lot of consequences. I think that is why he was killed.

YN: If there is a group like the one mentioned by Ma Mon Myat, can’t the police identify and arrest that group? How can police arrest them? Ko Swe Win, as you are close to the police, what do you think?

SW: I’m not close to the police. We do our own business. I think those who would commit such a secret and serious crime would only cooperate with three specific groups. The first group is those who have committed big crimes together [ex-accomplices]; the second group is trusted relatives; and the third group is close childhood friends and trusted partners. Only people belonging to these three groups would commit crimes together. Therefore, the police should investigate thoroughly and rigorously the people belonging to these three groups. But, as far as I know, police are not conducting such an investigation.

YN: Ko Swe Win, Ma Mon Myat, thank you for your contributions!