Hannah Beech writes: Whenever I met with Ko Ni, whether seated in his office, with its flickering electricity and precarious piles of law books, or sipping tea in the moldering headquarters of Myanmar’s then-opposition political party, the image that came to mind was that of Atticus Finch — though an Atticus wearing a Burmese sarong. With his salt-and-pepper hair and upright bearing, Ko Ni was the consummate honorable lawyer. He persevered for decades as one of Myanmar’s top constitutional experts despite living under the rule of a military junta with little respect for judicial process. Every day, he woke up and prepared to throw himself, pro bono, into hopeless cases. One day in his office, I saw a stack of papers at the foot of his desk. On top was a copy of the Bulgarian Constitution. You never know, he said, when knowledge of such a document might prove useful.
On January 29th, Ko Ni, sixty-three years old, was assassinated at the airport in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city. He had just returned from a democracy conference in Indonesia and was waiting for a taxi curbside, while holding his young grandson, when a gunman in sandals sauntered up and pumped a bullet into Ko Ni’s head at close range. Nay Win, a taxi driver who tried to chase down the assassin, was also shot to death. (Ko Ni’s grandson, who had come with relatives to greet his grandfather, tumbled out of the lawyer’s arms but was unhurt.)
As a senior legal adviser to the National League for Democracy, or N.L.D., which is the party of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Prize laureate and advocate for democracy, Ko Ni certainly had enemies. He had called for amending, or even rewriting, Myanmar’s Constitution, to reduce the power of the military that had drafted it in the first place. He was also a Muslim, a faith that makes up less than five per cent of the population in Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist nation. Being a Muslim in Myanmar has proved perilous in recent years, particularly in the country’s far western Rakhine state, where hundreds of Rohingya, a Muslim ethnicity largely stripped of citizenship, have been killed, and hundreds of thousands more displaced. A February report by the United Nations accused Burmese security forces of having unleashed a campaign of mass murder, torture, and rape late last year. On March 2nd, Yanghee Lee, the U.N.’s special rapporteur for human rights, reiterated that pogroms against the Rohingya “may amount to crimes against humanity.” Anti-Muslim violence has also flared outside of Rakhine, in places where Burmese of various faiths had long lived in harmony. [Continue reading…]