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Murdered Lawyer Was Working on Plan to Undercut Myanmar Military

Ko Ni, a prominent member of Myanmar's Muslim minority and legal adviser for Myanmar's ruling National League for Democracy, during an interview in Yangon, Jan. 13, 2016. Ko Ni was shot dead Jan. 29, 2017. (Photo: Reuters)

By Ron Corben
March 14, 2017

BANGKOK — A close associate of murdered Myanmar lawyer Ko Ni says the constitutional expert was working on a plan to weaken the military's political power when he was gunned down at Yangon's airport soon after his return from a conference in Indonesia on January 29.

The revelation is likely to feed persistent suspicions – which have been denied – that the military had a role in the assassination.

Military still holds power

Despite handing over power to a civilian government led by the National League for Democracy (NLD) party of activist Aung San Suu Kyi, the Myanmar armed forces retain wide powers under a constitution it promulgated in 2008.

That constitution guarantees the military 25 percent of the seats in parliament and gives it a veto over any constitutional amendment. It also controls the Ministry of Home Affairs, giving it authority over much of the nation's permanent bureaucracy.

Murdered lawyer Ko Ni may have found a loophole around the military

But commentator Bertil Lintner, a close associate of Ko Ni who also worked with him on journalism training, told VOA in an interview that the prominent NLD adviser believed he had uncovered a "loophole" that could be used to circumvent the military veto.

"[Ko Ni] said that there is nothing in the 2008 constitution which says that the constitution cannot be abolished by a single vote in parliament," Lintner said. 

He said a simple majority vote was all that is needed "to abolish the constitution and adopt a new one. He was working on it."

Lintner said Aung San Suu Kyi considered the idea "too provocative" and preferred efforts at gradual reform. But he said Ko Ni remained insistent.

Police investigating the killing have said the plot to kill Ko Ni was hatched in a tea shop last year by men who had a grudge against the lawyer. Several arrests have been made in the case.

Commentator thinks Ko Ni's murder was a warning

But Lintner said he believes Ko Ni's killing was intended as a warning.

"His murder was meant to send a very strong signal to anyone else who would even dream or think of changing the constitution. And therefore it was carried out in broad daylight outside the airport," he said.

He added the killing had created a "climate of fear" within the NLD party.

National League for Democracy denies the murder created fear within the party

NLD spokesman Win Thein denied that, while acknowledging that Ko Ni's loss was a blow for the party.

"It was definitely ... not fear. (Ko Ni's death) was a great loss, it was a great loss," Win Thein said.

He said the party's relationship with the military is "just the same" as before, and the NLD is "definitely" not nervous over the political climate. He added that the NLD would "never lose hope of amending the constitution."

Ko Ni called an "expert" on the 2008 Constitution

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for the New York-based rights organization Human Rights Watch, said Ko Ni was one of only a few people within the NLD who fully understood the nation's 2008 military-backed charter.

"Let's be clear, U Ko Ni was the technician," Robertson told a briefing at the foreign correspondent club (FCCT). "The NLD has no one to replace him in terms of dealing with the constitution. And if you look at the current configuration of Burmese politics, the 2008 constitution is about central to everything."

Tony Davis, an analyst with HIS Janes, agreed that Ko Ni was widely seen as a danger to the military's influence.

"This man posed an existential threat not just to the [military's] bank accounts, their future, but to the future of the country as they and their fallen comrades and their fathers have seen it since independence [in 1948]," Davis said at the FCCT. 

He said Ko Ni's killing points to a "bleak outlook" for Myanmar's political landscape.

The next general elections are in 2020.

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