The Lady vanishes: Suu Kyi goes missing as an assassin ends Myanmar's democracy dream


An effigy of Myanmar's State Counsellor and Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who the military see as their 'international flak-catcher'.

Ko Ni, a prominent lawyer and adviser to Myanmar's ruling National League for Democracy (NLD), scooped up his five-year-old grandson and was cradling him at Yangon International Airport's taxi rank after returning from a trip to Indonesia.

The assassin's bullet aimed at changing the course of Myanmar's future came from point-blank range, in broad daylight, amid the bustle of the country's biggest airport.

© AP Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi arrives to attend a memorial ceremony to mark one month from the killing of Ko Ni and taxi driver Ne Win.

"My father was talking to his grandson. Then I heard a gunshot," said Yin Nwe Khine, a doctor, who was standing nearby.

"At first I thought it was a car tyre blowing out, then I saw my father lying on the ground."

© AP Aung San Suu Kyi remained silent for weeks and was absent from Ko Ni's funeral, prompting criticisms about her inability or unwillingness to speak out on many issues.

Ko Ni's family had worried for months as he worked on a plan to amend Myanmar's 2008 Constitution, which he saw as enshrining supreme power for the country's military despite Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD's landslide victory at elections in November 2015.

In lectures, forums and newspaper articles, Ko Ni spoke out about how the constitution stacked power in the hands of the military and was inconsistent with democracy.

Behind the scenes, the 65-year-old, softly-spoken father of three had also played a key role in creating the office of State Counsellor, a position that allowed Suu Kyi to become de facto leader of the country, bypassing a constitutional clause barring anyone who has foreign relatives from becoming president and solving a major dilemma for the NLD when it took power.

The military, which wrote the clause precisely to prevent Suu Kyi leading the country, was deeply unhappy about the new position.

Ko Ni, a Muslim in the majority-Buddhist country, had received threats but pushed ahead with his work, often arriving home after midnight and ignoring concerns for his own safety.

"He always said that lawyers are forever worrying, and never wanted to pass those worries on to his family," Yin Nwe Khine said.

Melissa Crouch, a friend of Ko Ni's from the University of New South Wales and an expert on Myanmar's constitution, remembers him expressing particular concern about the situation in his country in a phone call in August last year.

"I had never heard him talk in such pessimistic tones before – he showed concern for people's safety, human rights and security," Crouch says.

"He warned that it was not safe for locals to be talking in public forums about constitutional issues but encouraged foreigners to continue to do so."

Police claim the plot to kill Ko Ni was hatched in a tea shop in April last year by a group of men who held a personal grudge against him.

Whether that is true or not – and many observers doubt the police account – it is clear he was targeted in a brazen and well-planned political assassination on January 29.

At least three other co-conspirators are believed to have watched at the airport as Kyi Lin, the 53-year-old gunman, tried to run away after firing a single shot from a Myanmar-made 9-millimetre pistol.

What they didn't count on was the bravery of airport taxi drivers, who saw the shooting and gave chase.

Kyi Lin, a criminal and former soldier who was reportedly paid the equivalent of $US71,500 ($95,000) to carry out the hit, turned and shot dead one of the pursuing drivers, before others managed to overpower him and hold him for police.