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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.

On February 26, more than four weeks after the killing, Myanmar's Office of the President distributed a photo of him and announced in a brief statement the killing was ordered by 45-year-old Aung Win Khine, who was still at large.

The statement did not mention that Aung Win Khine was a former lieutenant-colonel who retired from Myanmar's army in 2014.

Also arrested was another former soldier, Aung Win Khine's 46-year-old brother Aung Win Zaw.

The military denies any involvement in the plot.

But Myanmar experts sitting on a panel at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand painted a picture of a military leadership with a bunker mentality obsessed with the belief that only generals can rule the country and keep it united, and who had the most to benefit from Ko Ni's death.

Larry Jagan, a commentator and analyst living in Myanmar who has been following the country for 40 years, quoted military sources telling him last year that the military saw Ko Ni as its most serious threat because he was leading the push for constitutional change, although he believes the order for the assassination did not come from the military's top ranks.

He said as a result of the death those in the NLD who had wanted to move quietly and not push the military on constitutional reform now hold sway.

Asked about this, Crouch said she didn't think the reform push had ended but "it may require a change of tactics and patience".

Anthony Davis, a security consultant and analyst with defence publisher Jane's, said the military organised a fraudulent constitution in 2008 that allowed it to effectively continue to operate as a state within the state, maintaining its grip despite all the talk of a transformed Myanmar ruled by a democratically elected government.

Davis said the military wanted to be seen as moving towards democracy because it had no choice in today's world, but generals always saw it as a "disciplined" or "guided" democracy, where they still dominated all aspects of Burmese society in much the same way they have for more than 50 years.

"Even before the 2015 election, but especially in the days after, there has been a facile, childlike enthusiasm for democratic change, a belief the country was being transformed and was on the right track," he said.

"But basically if you set that vision of where the military has come from and where it is today, it disappears in a puff of smoke."

Analysts say Ko Ni's death is a pivotal point in the history of the country, rekindling deep concerns about its future.

"The bullet was not only for Ko Ni. It was for the NLD and the people who want to amend and replace the 2008 Constitution and support the peace process," said Thein Than Oo, a human rights lawyer in Mandalay.

The killing stunned the NLD. But for weeks Aung San Suu Kyi remained inexplicably silent. She was absent from Ko Ni's funeral, prompting further criticisms about her inability or unwillingness to speak out on many issues, including military offensives against ethnic armies in border areas and atrocities against Rohingyas in western Rakhine state, which the UN has described as ethnic cleansing and "very likely" crimes against humanity.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said the military is "more than happy to have Aung San Suu Kyi as their international flak-catcher" while its business conglomerate reaps the rewards of the lifting of economic sanctions by Western nations, which she recommended.

Davis, who has deep knowledge of Myanmar's army, believes the country's future is "looking pretty bleak" now that the NLD has lost Ko Ni.

He envisages the military, which under the constitution controls the ministries of defence, home and interior, and is automatically allocated 25 per cent of seats in parliament, will want to see Suu Kyi remain in place for years while keeping her powerless on a wide range of issues.

He said the Nobel laureate will be 75 at the time of the next elections in 2020 and given the NLD's weak leadership in its first year in office, her party may even struggle to retain office.

Crouch said Ko Ni's death was seen as a personal attack on members of the NLD while for lawyers it was seen as an outrageous attack on their profession.

"However, I would suggest his death has been felt hardest for Muslims," Crouch said, pointing out that there was an increase in online hate speech against Muslims in the days after the killing.

Ashin Wirathu, a radical Buddhist monk, even praised the killers.

"As a Muslim, Ko Ni achieved public respect and fame in a way that no other Muslim has achieved in a very long time," Crouch said.

"His assassination is a clear message to the Muslim community – intended or otherwise – you are not welcome here, we do not want you to contribute to the future of our country, your safety and life is at risk, leave."


(c) 2017 MSN News

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