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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Truth Elusive in Case of Assassinated Lawyer in Myanmar

By Joe Freeman August 01, 2017

After the prominent lawyer U Ko Ni was gunned down in broad daylight as he departed Yangon's airport on January 29, authorities moved quickly, arresting four suspects and later holding a rare news conference to share details about the investigation.

Senior law enforcement officials attributed the motive to "extreme patriotism," saying the suspects felt "resentful" over Ko Ni's political work, leading many to believe the lawyer's efforts to amend the 2008 military-drafted constitution had inspired the plot.

Big questions loom

But six months after the assassination, as the trial drags on in Yangon and the alleged mastermind remains at large, there are more questions than answers, raising concerns whether justice will be done.

"The fundamental question that many are starting to ask is, 'Do the police really want to find any additional culprits?" Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia Division, said in an email. "Right now, it appears that the investigation is deliberately spinning its wheels and the situation will get worse if something urgently is not done."

The defendants in custody include the alleged shooter Kyi Lin, who is also accused of killing taxi driver Nay Win before being apprehended at the airport, and Aung Win Zaw, Zeya Phyo and Aung Win Tun.

The fifth suspect, Aung Win Khaing, is still on the run. The government believes he organized the plan with his brother Aung Win Zaw and Zeya Phyo. Aung Win Tun is accused of harboring one of the suspects.

Questions for the army

While no one is accusing the military of direct involvement, the case raises uncomfortable questions for the institution, known as the Tatmadaw in Burmese.

Ko Ni was a legal adviser to Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, which at the time of his death had been in power less than a year after winning historic elections in 2015, jolting Myanmar out of decades of military rule. But the 2008 constitution that Ko Ni was working to change ensures the military retains parliamentary power even under a civilian government by reserving 25 percent of seats for Tatmadaw-appointed MPs.

Aung Win Khaing, the missing fifth suspect, was last seen in the capital, Naypyitaw, almost two weeks after the assassination. At least three of the suspects, including Aung Win Khaing, are retired army officials.

The authorities have put forward the theory that disgruntled plotters may have wanted to create friction between the military and Suu Kyi's newly-elected government amid a delicate transition.

"We have to think about a lot of things," Minister of Home Affairs Lt. General Kyaw Swe was quoted as saying at the briefing in late February. "Why are the suspected conspirators former army officers? Was this an attempt to cause discord between the military and the government?"

Officials did not respond to requests for additional comment.

Religious connection

There are a few facts surrounding the case that observers say are being glossed over.

Ko Ni was not only a prominent lawyer, he was a prominent member of the country's Muslim community, which has faced increased persecution in recent years in Buddhist-majority Myanmar. Many people believe his faith was at least a partial motive, making him an easier target.

There also remains to be heard the full narrative from the side of the defendants, which may differ from the government's version as the case proceeds.

But it is the elusive Aung Win Khaing who has loomed largest over the case. "I think authorities should try to capture the fugitive," prosecuting attorney Nay La said.

Authorities say they have tried, telling reporters they distributed images of him to nearby countries and issued an INTERPOL red notice.

Nay La said 11 witnesses have testified since hearings began in March, and 70 more are on the list, promising a long trial.

Meanwhile, the families of Ko Ni and taxi driver Nay Win, who was killed trying to pursue the suspected shooter, wait for answers.

"It's good to have the truth in the case as soon as possible, then it will be good for both of us," said Su Thet Khine, 31, Nay Win's widow. "If we finish the case, we can all see the rule of law in the country."

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