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Democracy and Peace Frustrated in Myanmar: Remembering U Ko Ni

Acknowledgement: This article first appeared in The Interpreter, The Lowy Institute, 29 January 2018--

Today marks one year since U Ko Ni, a prominent lawyer and advocate for constitutional reform, was assassinated in Myanmar. This was just one of many incidents in 2017 that indicated a sharp decline in freedoms not only in Myanmar but across Southeast Asia. Ko Ni’s death is an example of how efforts towards democracy and peace are frustrated in Myanmar.

This calculated killing came as a shock because U Ko Ni was publicly known as a legal advisor to the National League for Democracy, the political party of Noble Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. His death was condemned globally, from Amnesty International to the pages of The New York Times.

The devastating tragedy exposed the revolutionary nature of the call for constitutional reform in Myanmar. Efforts to change the constitutional order pose a threat to the military and its role in governance in Myanmar.

U Ko Ni publicly and consistently called out the extreme difficulties of formally amending the Constitution and advocated for a new constitutional order. He was also involved in the creation of the Office of State Counsellor, a position tailor made for Aung San Suu Kyi. This position has legitimized her role as defacto leader of the government.

Despite this, Suu Kyi herself remained strangely silent for an entire month after his death. Persistent calls for an independent investigation have been ignored. Four men have been arrested and put on trial in connection with the assassination. A fifth man, allegedly the conspirator and a former military officer, remains at large. The trial in Yangon drags on with little hope that the real reason for U Ko Ni’s death will surface.

In many ways the reasons are all too obvious. U Ko Ni’s death was a targeted campaign against those most visibly involved in advocating for the end of military rule through constitutional change.

U Ko Ni had often been asked whether Myanmar’s Constitution can be changed and if so how. In his writings and public speeches, he spoke at length of the impossibility of substantially amending the Constitution.

Constitutional amendment in Myanmar effectively requires the consent of the military members of parliament. His death was a warning to legal advocates involved in constitutional reform to back down. No challenge to the military’s Constitution will be tolerated.

U Ko Ni’s affiliation with the NLD and pro-democratic actors means that his death was also a warning to them. It was a stark reminder that the NLD government remains vulnerable without the protection of the police or military.

His identity as a Muslim lawyer in this majority-Buddhist country did not go unnoticed. His assassination was felt deeply by minorities, both Muslims and other religious and ethnic minorities who know only too well the force of local Buddhist extremism. U Ko Ni’s death was aimed at silencing those seeking to advocate for greater equality and protection for minorities.

He also made a major contribution to both democracy and peace in Myanmar. In the lead up to the 2015 elections, he was one of few to publicly disagree with the NLD. A scare campaign against the NLD played the anti-Muslim card to discredit the party and its chances of winning. The NLD chose not to include any Muslims in their Central Executive Committee and failed to field any Muslim candidates.

Over 1 million people who previously held temporary identity cards, most Rohingya, were excluded from voting or running for office. This was blatant mass disenfranchisement. For U Ko Ni, this was not a free and fair election. The Constitution offers no guarantees of a right to vote. Democracy was deeply compromised.

U Ko Ni also made a major contribution to peace in Myanmar. Implicitly, by calling for constitutional reform, he was advocating for legal change, rather than political violence.

He, like many others, wanted to believe that this time law mattered. This time, the authority of law should trump resort to political violence. Given the histories of conflict and insurgency in Myanmar, this is a radical call.

Of course, Aung San Suu Kyi and the president continue to suggest that constitutional reform is immanent. But one wonders at what cost.

Another horrific spate of conflict has left an estimated 6,700 Rohingya dead in northern Rakhine State. Another 650,000 people have fled, constituting the largest displacement of people in the region in recent history. Entire villages burnt to the ground. The alleged threat of terrorism cannot justify such atrocities].

The suspicious arrest of journalists investigating the Rakhine conflict raises ongoing concerns about media freedom. U Ko Ni would never have sanctioned a deal for constitutional change at such a cost to the lives of so many vulnerable people. Like many of us, perhaps he is looking on through grief, pain and tears.

This year the struggle for democracy and peace in Myanmar will be carried on by others. Too many people’s lives depend upon it not to.

Tributes to U Ko Ni’s life can be found here or an extended memorium here (also available in Burmese).

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