A Myanmar court sentenced two men to death Friday for killing U Ko Ni, a well-known adviser to the country’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi and one of Myanmar’s best known advocates for democracy.
The 65-year-old lawyer was waiting for a taxi at the Yangon airport in January 2017 when he was shot in the head, reports say, while he was holding his grandchild. The gunman, U Kyi Lin, went on to kill a cabdriver who tried to intervene. Both the shooter and an accomplice were sentenced to death. Two other accomplices got prison sentences, The Associated Press reported.
The assassination stunned the country, and tens of thousands of mourners attended Ko Ni’s funeral. Ko Ni, a Muslim in the predominantly Buddhist country, had written several books on democracy and had just returned from a Jakarta visit to study interfaith peace in Indonesia. He was a legal adviser for the country’s ruling National League for Democracy who routinely condemned state violence against the minority Rohingya population, which human rights investigators have since said could constitute a genocide.
“With his salt-and-pepper hair and upright bearing, Ko Ni was the consummate honorable lawyer,” The New Yorker wrote shortly after his murder. “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.”
After Ko Ni’s death, the government said the gunman had been trying to “undermine the country’s stability,” The New York Times reported.
Kyi Lin’s lawyer said his client shot Ko Ni because his family was being threatened, the Wall Street Journal reported. But police say the man who planned the attack, a former lieutenant colonel opposed to Ko Ni’s politics, is still at large. “The masterminds are still out,” Ko Ni’s legal representative said during the trial, the Journal reported.
“Ko Ni certainly was involved in several causes that could have made him many enemies in Myanmar,” wrote the Council on Foreign Relations’ senior fellow, Joshua Kurlantzick, when the gunman was arrested in 2017. “He was one of the best-known Muslims in Myanmar, at a time when violent anti-Muslim sentiments have become common in social media, hard-line Buddhist nationalist monks have become mini-celebrities, and violence between Buddhists and Muslims has destroyed many communities in western Myanmar.”
Ko Ni had called for the amendment of Myanmar’s Constitution to reduce the power of the military, and his death “cast a pall over reform efforts,” Reuters has reported.