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.
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.
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.”
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.“
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