RANGOON — Burma’s police chief said that the assassination of lawyer U Ko Ni was driven by a “personal grudge,” and named one more person arrested on suspicion of being connected with the case at a press conference in Rangoon on Saturday.
It was the first time police and the home affairs ministry revealed their findings on the case directly to the media.
Chief of the country’s police force Maj-Gen. Zaw Win said that on Feb. 3, police arrested Zeya Phyo, an alleged business partner of the third suspect in the assassination plot Aung Win Khaing.
Zeya Phyo, 42, was a captain at the Burma Army’s information department (widely known as the military intelligence unit) and quit in 2004, Maj-Gen Zaw Win told the media.
The U Ko Ni assassination plan allegedly began in early April last year, as the two business partners—Aung Win Khaing and Zeya Phyo—felt “resentful” of U Ko Ni’s political activities, according to the police chief.
“Aung Win Khaing [allegedly] told Zeya Phyo that he wanted to ‘eliminate’ U Ko Ni, and it’s possible he asked his elder brother’s old inmates to do the killing,” the police chief said.
A week later, Aung Win Khaing told Zeya Phyo that he had assigned his brother, Aung Win Zaw, to take care of the assassination and allegedly asked Zeya Phyo for “financial assistance” to carry it out, Maj-Gen Zaw Win said.
Zeya Phyo handed over 100 million kyats to Aung Win Khaing in August, he added.
The brother, Aung Win Zaw, initially approached a 37-year-old suspected drug trafficker Nagar Lay—aka Aung Naing Myint—in May last year to kill U Ko Ni.
Nagar Lay agreed to do so in exchange for an unlicensed car and 20 million kyats, the police chief said, but the plan fell through when Nagar Lay absconded with the car and cash.
Nagar Lay escaped a police operation intending to arrest him in Rangoon on Feb. 16. The police apprehended him on Thursday in Minbu Township, Magwe Division.
Aung Win Zaw also approached Aung Soe, 51, a former fellow inmate at Mandalay’s Obo Prison, for the assassination, the police chief said.
Aung Soe told reporters earlier this month that he recognized assassin Kyi Lin—another inmate at Obo Prison with him and Aung Win Zaw—in pictures of the murder scene and said he rejected the job offered to him in June last year.
Aung Soe said that Aung Win Zaw told him to “kill a diplomat of a foreign religion in broad daylight in downtown Rangoon—and if successful, this would be good for the country, our race, and religion.”
He said he declined the offer of US$100,000, weapons training, and arrangements to hide out on the Thai-Burma border.
Kyi Lin was the last person Aung Win Zaw approached to conduct the assassination and eventually gunned down U Ko Ni at Yangon International Airport on Jan. 29.
Gunman Kyi Lin was held by a group of taxi drivers immediately after the crime. The following day, the police arrested Aung Win Zaw in Karen State, who confessed that his brother Aung Win Khaing was behind the assassination plot. Aung Win Khaing remains at large.
At Saturday’s press conference, police Maj. Gen Zaw Win said the police force has questioned 73 persons (excluding the three arrested suspects) since U Ko Ni’s murder.
Police have opened several cases against the suspects. Gunman Kyi Lin and Aung Win Zaw are charged with Article 301 of the Penal Code and Article 19(f) of the Arms Act.
Zeya Phyo is charged with Article 67 of the Telecommunications Law for the possession of restricted telecommunications equipment and Article 420 and 468 of the Penal Code for forgery. Aung Win Khaing—who is still at large—is charged under Article 302 of the Penal Code.
Home Affairs Minister Lt-Gen. Kyaw Swe—who was joined at the press conference by his deputy Maj-Gen Aung Soe—said that his ministry had been investigating but was not able to reveal every finding to the media and public.
“There were some [restraints] in revealing what we have uncovered as investigations have yet to be completed,” he said.
“We have to think about a lot of things. Why are the suspected conspirators former army officers? Was this an attempt to cause discord between the military and the government?” Lt-Gen Kyaw Swe questioned.
Based on investigations and suspects’ confessions, it is highly possible that extreme nationalism contributed to the grudge that led to the assassination, he added.
Saturday’s announcements and a Feb. 15 press statement by the President’s Office differ in their timelines of the assassination plot.
The President’s Office stated that Aung Win Khaing asked his elder brother Aung Win Zaw to kill U Ko Ni in July 2016, while the police force said that it was in April 2016.
The police chief said that the investigation had not yet been completed and that they had distributed pictures and personal information of the suspect at large to all local and international law enforcement organizations, including Asean and the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol).
Burma’s ruling party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), will organize a memorial service in Rangoon on Sunday to mark one month since U Ko Ni—who was a legal adviser to the party—and taxi driver U Ne Win were shot and killed. According to NLD sources, State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will attend the ceremony.
The ceremony will take place at the Royal Rose restaurant in Bahan Township on Sunday, according to the NLD’s press invitation, and will also be attended by Lower House Speaker U Win Myint, Rangoon Division Chief Minister U Phyo Min Thein, central executive committee members of the NLD, and U Ko Ni’s family members.
U Ko Ni was an expert on Burma’s controversial 2008 Constitution and worked with the NLD to amend or replace the charter that is widely criticized as undemocratic.
The 65-year old lawyer was a strong opponent of the country’s four sets of “Race and Religion Protection” laws—the controversial legislation proposed by the Buddhist nationalist group Ma Ba Tha and approved by the previous U Thein Sein government.
Many have criticized Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s silence over U Ko Ni’s death and noted her absence at his funeral. U Ko Ni is credited with creating the position of State Counselor for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as she is barred from the Presidency under Article 59(f) of the military-drafted 2008 Constitution.