Assassination of Myanmar lawyer suggests divide between government and military

By: Logan Connor - Posted on: February 17, 2017 | Current Affairs

Though a clear motive has yet to emerge for the assassination of prominent Myanmar lawyer Ko Ni, many are pointing to his work to curtail the military’s power

People carry the coffin of late Lawyer Ko Ni covered with the National League for Democracy (NLD) party flag during the funeral service at the Muslim cemetery in Yangon, Myanmar
People carry the coffin of late Lawyer Ko Ni covered with the National League for Democracy (NLD) party flag during the funeral service at the Muslim cemetery in Yangon, Myanmar, 30 January 2017. Photo: EPA/NYEIN CHAN NAING

This week, allegations emerged that an ex-army officer was behind the assassination of prominent Myanmar lawyer Ko Ni on 29 January. Given Ko Ni’s involvement with drafting a new constitution that would limit the powers of the military, his murder suggests that tensions between the military and the new civilian government are boiling over.

A statement issued by the office of the president accused Aung Win Khaing, a former army lieutenant colonel who retired voluntarily from the military in 2014, of planning the killing.

Sai Tun Aung Lwin, a journalist based in Yangon, told Southeast Asia Globe there was a widespread belief in Myanmar that the killing was related to the threat of the country’s 2008 constitution being axed. That constitution, which was drafted in a convention boycotted by the now-ruling National League for Democracy (NLD), guarantees 25% of parliamentary seats go to army officials and grants the military a controversial veto power.

Since the November 2015 elections that brought the NLD to power, the military-affiliated Union Solidarity and Development Party has been looking to institute reform, desperately trying to save itself from obscurity. A new constitution, one that would sap the military of its power and give more control to the NLD, could mean political death for the army.

Marco Buente, an associate professor of politics and international relations at Malaysia’s Monash University, said Myanmar’s recent foray into the realm of democracy may have drawn the ire of officials who had advocated for a more hardline, militaristic approach to leadership.

“What we can definitely say is that, for some, democratisation already went too far, and the assassination should serve as a reminder that reforms should not cross a certain line,” he said.

“The military has devised this political order and seems to be ready to protect it.”

But Buente pointed out that there a clear motive for the murder has yet to emerge. Given that the lawyer was Muslim, and that Myanmar is experiencing a vicious divide between the country’s Buddhist majority and Muslim minority, the motivation for the killing could have been religious, rather than political.

Myanmar state counsellor and NLD figurehead Aung San Suu Kyi, serving as the country’s de facto leader, has controversially pursued a close relationship with the military, according to Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“Suu Kyi has taken an exceptionally lenient approach toward the military and former military,” said Kurlantzick. “So much so that she has been criticised by some in the NLD.”

He stressed that it was too early to declare a clear link between the murder and tensions between government and military.

“I’m not sure that it necessarily suggests about a broader divide: Suu Kyi actually has been working closely with the military and, so far, hasn’t tried to cross them very much,” Kurlantzick said. “It may be, however, that Ko Ni alienated the military with his comments and advocacy, but we still really don’t know enough.”

But Myanmar, Kurlantzick said, has a history of aggressive activism being met with heavy-handed repression.

“Even before this,” he said, “anyone who vigorously spoke out against the military, even under this government, would have been worried about their safety.”