The press briefing on the investigation into the assassination of lawyer U Ko Ni has received thumbs-down from many public and political observers.
Home Affairs Minister Gen Kyaw Swe said the National League for Democracy legal adviser’s assassins were motivated by “extreme nationalism” and that the murder could be attributed to “personal grudges.”
The public’s immediate reaction to the briefing was strong. As it was announced that ex-army officers who were trained in the Defense Services Academy (DSA) were allegedly involved in the killing of U Ko Ni, it was believed that the assassination was politically motivated and that influential organizations or individuals could have been behind the murder.
At the press briefing, a new name emerged: Lin Zaw Htun, a former colonel who is now a Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP) parliamentarian. His identity was brought up in response to a question asked by a reporter to the home affairs minister.
Lin Zaw Htun served as an aide or Personal Security Officer (PSO) to current military commander in chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing.
In an interview with the press, Lin Zaw Htun admitted that he knew suspects Zeya Phyo and Aung Win Khaing. He and Aung Win Khaing attended the DSA together, in Intake 36. The accusation that arose was that Lin Zaw Htun must have known about the plot in advance, which he has since denied, threatening to sue any individuals who make such allegations against him.
So far, the police have detained three suspects, and one more is currently at large—Aung Win Khaing, a former colonel. According to police findings, Aung Win Khaing traveled to Naypyidaw after the killing of U Ko Ni. It was not clear whether he went there to take refuge, but it is hoped he will soon be apprehended.
U Ko Ni’s murder was not committed impulsively. The investigation showed that more than US$100,000 was carefully allocated to guarantee that the well-known lawyer would be silenced. Several criminals were reportedly approached and asked to carry out the crime. Reports also suggest that weapons training and some arrangements for perpetrators hide out on the Thai-Burmese border were organized in advance. Aung Win Zaw was caught in Karen State, and it is believed he was headed to the border region.
There is, therefore, no doubt that the killing was planned, perhaps several months in advance, and with adequate financial resources and intelligence gathering carried out in preparation. Perhaps it was also an act meant to instill fear amongst the public, as the assassins chose to kill U Ko Ni in broad daylight at an international airport.
Gen Kyaw Swe’s press conference, and his description of the alleged killers’ motivation, has been perceived by some as being sympathetic to the assassins. It has raised questions about whether the ongoing investigation has preserved any credibility.
In any case, if powerful figures or parties were in fact involved in the killing, this is not the first time such a phenomenon would have occurred; during the rule of Burma’s former military junta, there are believed to have been several such state-sponsored plots involving thuggish attacks and even murder.
One well-known case is the Depayin Massacre, which happened in May of 2003. Named for the area of Sagaing Region in which it took place, a convoy belonging to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her supporters was viciously attacked and some individuals were killed.
The main culprit, according to past reports, were members of the Union Solidarity and Development Association and thugs known as Swan Ah Shin, the latter of whom were reportedly assigned to ambush the convoy. It has also been said that junta officials allegedly asked some monasteries to provide young monks to take part in the attack.
Hardline regional commanders stationed in central Burma were believed to have been ordered to provide logistical support to the junta supporters and thugs.
Three powerful people were named as being responsible for the attack. Gen Soe Win, then Secretary-2 of the junta; Ye Myint, Central Regional Military Commander; and Aung Thaung, a powerful minister.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, her driver and some other NLD members managed to escape the massacre, but were later arrested. She was again placed under house arrest.
The regime official said that no more than five people were killed in the attack, but regime dissidents claim that about 70 people lost their lives that day. The international community condemned the attacks and imposed further pressure on the regime. But no investigation was launched to identify the perpetrators and bring them to trial.
After the attack, Soe Win became prime minister under the blessing of then junta chairman Snr-Gen Than Shwe. Soe Win, who died of leukemia in October 2007, was likely not the mastermind of the infamous Depayin attack, but as a powerful general and favorite of Than Shwe, he briefly mentioned on the record that he was a scapegoat in the ambush. Many former army officers still maintain that he was one of the key players.
Aung Thaung became a member of Parliament and died in July 2015. He and his family were made incredibly wealthy due to numerous business interests established while the country was under military rule. He was also rumored of being behind the rise of Ma Ba Tha, and in recent years, Aung Thaung was accused of playing a supporting role in the 2012 to 2014 sectarian violence that killed more than 300 people, most of them Muslim.
A year before he passed away, the US imposed sanctions on him, as he was accused of undermining Burma’s transition to democracy.
Aung Thaung never went to trial. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi even attended his funeral, ignoring criticism from her critics and activists.
Under former President Thein Sein, Burma saw the rise of extreme nationalism, the creation of the well-funded Ma Ba Tha, the 969 movement, and increased violence against the country’s Muslim population. Thein Sein’s government took little action to prevent both this and the spread of hate speech.
Gen Kyaw Swe used the word “extreme nationalism” to describe the motive of those who killed U Ko Ni. It is this extremism that was fostered by previous regimes and those loyal to them. The assassins undoubtedly felt they would be sheltered from the law, from justice.
It is time to show both the domestic and international communities that there will be proper and credible investigation into the murder of U Ko Ni.