YANGON, MYANMAR - Thousands of Myanmar politicians, activists and others shocked by the assassination of a longtime adviser to leader Aung San Suu Kyi gathered Monday at a cemetery for an emotional funeral ceremony, while police investigated the motive for the killing.
Ko Ni, a prominent lawyer and member of Myanmar's Muslim minority, was shot in the head at close range as he walked out of the Yangon airport Sunday. The suspected shooter was apprehended while trying to escape.
A statement issued late Monday by the office of President Htin Kyaw said that according to an initial interrogation, the shooting was intended “to threaten the country's stability.” It said the authorities would step up security measures, and urged people not to be frightened and refrain from agitation involving race or religion.
The killing shocked many in Yangon because attacks on prominent people are rare, although security forces are notorious for brutal behavior in remote rural areas, especially when dealing with ethnic minorities.
Ko Ni “is irreplaceable for both Aung San Suu Kyi and the party,” Suu Kyi's ruling National League for Democracy party said in a statement. He was especially valued as an expert in constitutional law, looking for ways to sidestep provisions placed in the charter by an earlier military junta to retain power at the expense of elected governments.
He was seen as a familiar and helpful figure by journalists and human rights workers who have found Suu Kyi's government almost as difficult to deal with as the military-backed regime it replaced.
At the same time, Ko Ni was active in defending the rights of Muslims, who often face discrimination in Buddhist-majority Myanmar. Last year, he helped found the Myanmar Muslim Lawyers Association, which was criticized by ultra-nationalist Buddhists monks as well as by some of his political allies, who feared it encouraged sectarianism.
Anti-Muslim sentiments have increased in the country in recent years following deadly intercommunal violence in the western state of Rakhine, home to many Muslims belonging to the Rohingya minority. As a Burmese Muslim, Ko Ni shared their religion but was better integrated into mainstream Myanmar society.
The suspect was arrested after he also shot a taxi driver who tried to stop him from fleeing the airport, the Information Ministry said in a video posted on state-run MRTV. The driver died on the way to a hospital.
Police seized two guns from the man, whom they identified as Kyi Linn of Mandalay. Authorities were searching for any possible accomplices. Speculation about the motive included political intimidation, anti-Muslim prejudice and a possible business dispute involving the victim's private law practice.
Mandalay regional police chief Han Tun said at a news conference that the suspect is an ex-convict who had received a 27-year-sentence on three counts of stealing statues of Buddha. Reports in the Myanmar press said he was released in 2014 under an amnesty after serving 11 years.
Members of Parliament, political activists and NLD party members were among those who gathered Monday for the funeral at a Muslim cemetery on Yangon's outskirts, said Tun Kyi, a prominent Muslim activist and a friend of Ko Ni.
Many of the thousands of people who streamed to the cemetery wept openly. Security was tight, with police even using bomb detectors on the baskets of flowers sent by mourners.
The overflowing crowd turned rowdy at times, jostling for space as the open pavilion, with a capacity for perhaps 500 people, was surrounded by at least 10 times that number of people.
Those attending included U.S. Ambassador Scot Marciel, who called Ko Ni's death “a terrible loss.”
“Of course we are all shocked and really sad,” he said. “I knew Ko Ni and his commitment to his country and democracy.”
There are important antecedents in Myanmar for political violence against influential leaders, including Suu Kyi and her father Gen. Aung San, who led the country to independence from Britain. Aung San was assassinated in 1947 along with six members of his provisional Cabinet, and some historians consider his lost leadership a reason for the country's unrest since then, because he could not oversee a power-sharing agreement he had made with ethnic minorities.
Suu Kyi was the apparent target of an assassination attempt in 2003, when her motorcade was ambushed by a mob on a remote road in central Myanmar. Her driver maneuvered their car to escape, but other people in her entourage - four by government accounts, more according to other sources - were killed. The attack was generally thought to have been carried out by a faction of the military, although no one faced punishment.
Ethnic minority leaders have also been targets, most notably the monarch of the Shan minority, Sao Shwe Thaik, who was also the first president of Myanmar in 1948-1952. He was arrested by the military when it staged a coup in 1962 and died in unclear circumstances in custody. His son was shot dead on the day of the coup, and another Shan noble disappeared after being arrested.