Idealism killed the Burmese

MYANMAR AND DEMOCRACY: Modern Times Review have met the lawyer who most likely became just too dangerous for the old Myanmar military: He was recently killed because he fought for the new democracy alongside Aung San Suu Kyi.

Truls Lie
Editor-in-chief, Modern Times Review. Also head of the Norwegian monthly newspaper NY TID. Based in Oslo/Berlin.

He was shot whilst queuing for a taxi, carrying his grandchild in his arms. At close range, with a bullet to the back of his head. The name of this Burmese lawyer is U Ko Ni. He was shot on January 29th this year by the hitman Kyi Lin. Up until that day, he was the eminent lawyer for Aung San Suu Kyi, the Myanmar leader, and considered a reformer of the old constitution. According to Aung Zaw, the editor of the independent newspaper Irrawadi, the ringleaders remain at large. There has been no official statement from Suu Kyi about the event, according to the paper. The official statement from the Presidential office said that this had to be a political act and an attempt to destabilise the country. U Ko Ni had just been working on a new constitution in place of the current one – which was created by the military.

Quasi-federalism

Let us rewind to a year ago, when Modern Times Review met U Ko Ni for a long conversation about the possibilities for the country’s new government under Suu Kyi. We visit him at his legal chambers in the centre of Yangon, and ask him about the laws – which, according to rumours, are not practiced despite their existence. “The majority of the government use the laws to cause trouble for people by penalising them, instead of developing people’s opportunities,” says U Ko Ni. “Instead, the laws ought to protect people’s rights.” He describes how the old constitution has enabled the military to retain its power. The military selects the most important ministerial posts, explains U Ko Ni. ”First of all, we need to alter the judicial system, and then we might be able to change the administrative system as well. Today, the administration is ruled by the Interior Minister, who is elected by the military, as opposed to by the President.”

The Interior Minister governs everything administrative, as well as the entire police force. In addition, the Minister for Defence and the minister for border issues are appointed by the head of the military. As Myanmar is formally a federal system of states, we ask U Ko Ni whether these regions consisting of different ethnic groups are independent. “In total, we have 14 governments, 14 parliaments and 14 different Courts of Law,” he says. “But, it is all for show – as the entire government is ruled by the Interior Ministry. So, unfortunately, what we have is quasi-federalism. Each state and ethnic group are able to elect their own leader, government and parliament, but they have no power in the central government. We should introduce a real democratic system with autonomy for each region’s politicians.”

During our stay in Myanmar, Modern Times Review kept hearing about the great discrepancies between who gets to enjoy the country’s natural resources and who does not. Some states have large deposits of the green gemstone jade, there are numerous gold mines and there are some particularly fertile agricultural lands. The Kachin state in the North, for instance, is rich in resources but its people remain impoverished. “No, this is not a fair system when it is ruled by the central government”, says U Ko Ni. “Resources such as these ought to be for the people.”

If you enjoy drawing cartoons of the leaders, you may get your Facebook account shut down by the military information department. I read this in Irrawadi, and therefore ask U Ko Ni to comment. “Yes, that law must be changed. Laws have to develop the possibilities for people to communicate, not to limit people.”

Corruption

And this leads us to a sore point in Myanmar – its extensive corruption. National leader Suu Kyi is cautious about dealing with this is issue too quickly, in order to avoid upsetting the many powerful people who enjoy great advantages from their loot. U Ko Ni also emphasises that the current government must proceed slowly – it could be dangerous to upset the existing power structure too much. A small number of people are tremendously wealthy and enjoy a great deal of power. However, as U Ko Ni underlines: The military dictatorship have had to bow down to the people, who want changes – all the millions who, in 2015–16, dressed in red t-shirts to signal that they wanted democracy. But what if someone assassinates Suu Kyi before she is able to complete her democratic reform?

Just how dangerous is the reform work? Is life also at stake for the lawyer who is behind the constitutional rewriting, in which they removed the military’s 50-year-old power to rule? “Yes, we have to be careful,“ he confirms. “If we proceed too fast, dangerous conflicts of interests will occur. We need between five to ten years to change things – something which, of course, is a challenge for us.»

«The military are trying to hang on to power for as long as they can. In the past, they ruled using weapons, now they are trying using the old constitution. That is why I want to change it.»

I mention the leader of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in 2007, and hint at a possible connection – something U Ko Ni disagrees with: “The cultures of Pakistan and Myanmar are different from one another. The people of Myanmar are kind-hearted, our country has Buddhist traditions. People understand Suu Kyi’s situation; the people are there to protect her. Lady Aung San Suu Kyi is the hope of the nation – the people are behind our new great leader.” The lawyer goes on to describe her diplomatic abilities: “Suu Kyi grew up in military surroundings with her father, the general who led the country. She understands the way the military think. We only need to change the attitudes of a handful – the military is not just an evil, it is also a necessary institution in our country.“

It is more than likely that this power elite killed the man I shared this conversation with last year, because he was the foremost exponent for a change in the laws that provided them with such benefits. I recall what he stated about corruption: “Altogether, we have had three different laws against corruption: The old law as established by the British colonial rule, followed by another in 1948; and quite recently a new anti-corruption law which is not too bad. The problem is that none of these rules have actually been implemented in the last 40 years! That is the main problem of this country.”

The Muslims

We had to turn off the large fan in the room, because of the audio recording of our two cameras. It is sweltering, and U Ko Ni’s forehead is wet with perspiration, but we carry on. There was a lot of criticism of U Ko Ni’s party, National League for Democracy (NLD), during the election processes where Muslims were not accounted for in governing organisations. Besides, some Buddhist monks attacked Muslims. “I assume that these monks will see sense,“ replies U Ko Ni. “What we see here is a classic political divide and conquer tactic, as promoted by the old rulers.” But, how great is the freedom to think differently – or to promote the secular – in a nation dominated by Buddhism? “According to the constitution we have religious freedom. This is generally accepted by the rulers. However, in connection with the election, there were many lobbyists who were trying to stir up a hatred of the Muslims. Some simply did not want any changes, so they set Buddhists up against Muslims.” I ask him why there are so few Muslims in the NDL. “The situation for Muslims is not very good in this country. The NDL do not want to discriminate – but Muslim candidates are not really wanted, because including such candidates creates problems. I think Muslims will understand. For instance, in the urban Baberan area, where 70 per cent of the population is Muslim, they elected the only Buddhist candidate to represent them. This happened because those who are able to change the country are most likely to be Buddhist –which is why Muslims vote this way.”

What about the Muslim Rohingya-people? They originate mainly from Bangladesh, explains U Ko Ni. Without citizenship, they have no right to vote in an election; and their so-called White Cards, as issued by the immigration department are only temporary, “until a permanent card might potentially be granted, following a short period of examinations.”

The military. We are sitting on the first floor in the poor part of town. A steel door separates the dusty staircase and run-down building from the somewhat more distinguished office and waiting room. The conversation returns to the military, which is deeply entangled with the national business life: “In particular, the military officers who own a share of the Myanmar holding companies: They control almost all of the businesses. These people nurture their own strong and personal interests rather than the interests of the people.”

And how about those who should uphold the laws, for instance the police force? “We have to reform the police force. We do not need a central police department for the entire country, instead each local state ought to have their own.” Once again, the conversation turns to the subject of corruption: “A large number of people in this country are corrupt. This is because the wages of lower level positions in the state are too meagre to cover even basic necessities. Meanwhile, on the higher levels are middle classes and some middle managers who do earn well enough – but who abuse their power. Then we have ministers and their colleagues, who actively enable and allow this abuse of power, and who even pay money under the table. This is a big problem for us, and the situation requires reforms. Even if Suu Kyi appoint some ministers who are not involved in corruption, it will remain a problem further down the ranks.”

«On January 29th, as he arrived back from Indonesia, the murderer lay in wait, to rob U Ko Ni of his life.»

To U Ko Ni, the military is the main problem. They hold the owner interests of Myanmar’s key resources. But he remains optimistic: “The whole country supports Suu Kyi, so the military will probably understand and comply with reality.” However, he also points out, as we sit in his tiny, cramped office: “The military is trying to hang on to power for as long as they can. In the past, they ruled using weapons – now they are trying to do so using the old Constitution. That is why I now want to change it.“

The reformer

This is what the burly idealist told me about the reforms; the man who wanted to rewrite the constitution. This was the man who travelled around speaking about the rights of the people. A couple of years ago, he was in Oslo, along with Suu Kyi. A visit organised by the Norwegian Burma Committee. On January 29th, he had just arrived back from Indonesia, when the murderer and his accomplices lay in wait to kill him.

That the elite whom he criticised were unhappy about his actions, is evident. That those higher up in the system, who passed this order, will ever be held accountable for his murder, seems very doubtful in Myanmar.


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