On 29 January 2017, prominent lawyer and legal advisor to the National League for Democracy (NLD), U Ko Ni, was assassinated at the Yangon International Airport upon returning to Myanmar after a government organized trip to Indonesia. The attack was met with outcry especially from local, regional and international civil society organizations who echoed that it was an irreplaceable loss to the human rights and social justice movement, as well as for the reform of rule of law in Myanmar. Many local organizations were shocked and saddened by the tragic loss with organizations such as Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) describing him ‘‘as an integral part of the democratization process and human rights movement in Burma, a fantastic lawyer, and above all a good and honourable man.’’ In addition, over 137 civil society organizations and networks including Progressive Voice, issued a statement condemning the killing.
U Ko Ni was well known for his contributions to improving the rule of law in Myanmar, where he specifically advocated for constitutional reform and amendments to the four laws on Race and Religion Protection. The set of laws were discriminatory in practice and limited the scope of religious and reproductive health freedom. An open critic of military control in politics, he was working on a new Constitution to replace the 2008 version drafted by the military. Despite some limited democratic reforms, the 2008 Constitution allows the military to hold onto power by assigning military personnel to three powerful ministries – Home Affairs, Border Affairs and Defence. It also ensures their role in national politics through the reservation of a quarter of unelected parliamentary seats – while the constitution needs more than 75% parliamentary approval for an amendment. U Ko Ni envisioned a Myanmar that is inclusive and provides equality and equity for all and worked vigorously in his attempts to make the Constitution for Myanmar based on democratic principles and values as its foundation.
As a legal expert he was committed to promoting legislation that protects all people and communities in Myanmar and was well known for his influence. One such endeavor was his role in developing an Interfaith Harmony Bill, which was purposed to promote religious inclusivity and to take effective actions against those defying it. He was relentless in his efforts to represent poor, marginalized and vulnerable communities, including religious and social minorities and regularly pushed for stronger legislative measures to tackle hate crimes. On controlling hate speech, he once said, “Given the current circumstances in our country, it is very necessary to enact a law to see effective action on hate speech and discrimination.”
Moreover, his commitment to multiculturalism ran contrary to the dominant narrative of rising religious nationalism in Myanmar. Rather, U Ko Ni looked to create spaces that embraced genuine democratic reform that was inclusive of all beliefs and ethnicities. In doing so, he often challenged the former USDP and current NLD governments to do more to protect and promote rights of the peoples. Speaking in May of last year with interfaith groups, U Ko Ni stated, “The government has the duty to act in the interest of all religions. They should not pay attention only to Buddhists but also to other religions, as the constitution says everyone has the right to religious freedom.”
U Ko Ni represented human dignity, freedom and unity. As a Muslim himself, he was vulnerable in his religious identity, yet despite the discrimination he was often subjected to, he remained vigilant in his work. In doing so, he was a voice for the unheard and oppressed and leaves behind a legacy of integrity. His funeral was symbolic in its defiance of religious animosity and divisions, while at the same time, the day was commemorated with hope and unity against such violence as thousands of people from different backgrounds attended his funeral expressing sadness and rejection of violence in honor of him. This large gathering gave hope for the protection of human rights defenders in Myanmar.
Ultimately, the legal shortcomings in protecting human rights defenders reinforces the necessity for more inclusive security reforms, particularly for those advocating for marginalized and vulnerable communities. As such, protection mechanisms for human rights defenders need to be put in place with full and effective implementation in order for them to carry out their human rights work in a space that is enabling and conducive and free from harm without repercussions and reprisals. U Ko Ni’s assassination was an attempt to threaten this space and invoke fear and consequence for what happens when human rights defenders and advocates refuse to be passive or repress their right to freedom of expression. According to the report, How to Defend the Defenders? published in 2015 by Burma Partnership, fears of harassment exacerbated by almost total impunity is an issue that needs desperate attention. Following the emotional outrage from civil society over the loss of U Ko Ni in less than two years after the report was published, it is clear that this issue remains to be taken seriously.
Progressive Voice strongly condemns the political assassination of U Ko Ni and calls for a transparent and thorough investigation into the motivations and masterminds behind the attack and hold all perpetrators accountable. Myanmar’s already fragile transition and further deteriorating human rights situation has reached a critical point regarding the need for protection for all vulnerable groups and communities. Thus, the Myanmar Government must take urgent measures for the security of human rights defenders through stronger legislative and judicial measures and physical and legal protection mechanisms. The government must initiate and conduct full, transparent and independent investigations into all serious human rights crimes including disappearances and extrajudicial killings, perpetrated against human rights defenders as well as civilians in armed conflict or conflict-related situations. All perpetrators who commit such crimes must be held accountable, including the Myanmar Army, powerful members of the State/government and business cronies. Additionally, the Myanmar Parliament should immediately review, amend or repeal existing repressive laws and draft new legislation in accordance with international human rights law that protects human rights defenders and enables them to carry out their legitimate human rights work.
 One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term ‘Myanmar’ in acknowledgement that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, ‘Burma’ is used.
Resources from the past week
Statements and Press Releases
By Association of Human Rights Defenders and Promoters
Statement on the Assassination of U Ko Ni
By Arakan National Council
By Arakan National Council
APHR Statement on the Killing of U Ko Ni in Myanmar
By ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights
Garment Industry in Myanmar Far from Fair
By The Centre for Research on Multinational Coorporations, Action Labor Rights and Labour Rights Defenders & Promoters
BURMA: CSW Condemns Assassination of Lawyer U Ko Ni
By Christian Solidarity Worldwide
Burma/Myanmar: Investigate the Assassination of U Ko Ni, and Address the Alarming Situation of Minorities
IBAHRI Decries Fatal Shooting of Prominent Lawyer U Ko Ni in Myanmar and Calls for an Investigation
By International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute
ဦးကိုနီအား လုပ္ၾကံမႈၾကီး အေပၚျပင္းထန္စြာ ကန္႔ကြက္ေၾကာင္း ထုတ္ျပန္ခ်က္
By Legal Aid Network
What are the Factors Which Caused the Assassination of Supreme Court Lawyer U Ko Ni?
By Legal Aid Network
Smile Education and Development Foundation – the killing of U Ko Ni is a great loss for human rights and democracy in Myanmar
By Smile Education and Development Foundation
UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative, Ms Renata Dessallien
By United Nations Resident Coordinator in Myanmar
Devastating Cruelty against Rohingya Children, Women and Men Detailed in UN Human Rights Report
By United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
Myanmar: UN rights Expert Condemns Senseless Killing of Respected Muslim Lawyer Ko Ni
By Yanghee Lee /United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar
Rohingya Condemn Assassination of U Ko Ni and Call for Urgent investigation
By 21 Rohingya Organizations
INFINEON Must Stop Union Busting and Discrimination Against Union Leaders
By 43 Organizations and Trade Unions
အမ်ိဳးသားဒီမိုုကေရစီအဖြဲ႔ခ်ဳပ္၏ ဥပေဒအၾကံေပးျဖစ္သူ ဦးကိုုနီလုုပ္ၾကံသတ္ျဖတ္ခံရျခင္းအေပၚ အရပ္ဘက္လူမႈအဖြဲ႔အစည္းမ်ား၏ သေဘာထားထုုတ္ျပန္ခ်က္
By 137 Civil Society Organizations
The Myanmar Dilemma
By The Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations, Action Labor Rights and Labour Rights Defenders & Promoters
Flash Report: Interviews with Rohingyas Fleeing from Myanmar from 9 October 2016
By United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.”