YANGON (Reuters) - As Ko Ni walked out of Yangon International Airport on a warm January afternoon in 2017, the legal adviser to Myanmar’s ruling party had reason to smile.
His grandson, two years old with chubby cheeks, was waiting for him. Ko Ni, 63, scooped the boy up in a tight hug. On the sidewalk outside the airport, their faces close, they gazed at the bustle of luggage and taxis.
Ko Ni did not see the man in a pink shirt and shorts step out of the crowd behind them. The man raised a Czech-made 9mm pistol to the base of Ko Ni’s skull and pulled the trigger. A bullet punched a small hole in the back of Ko Ni’s head and then blew out his teeth on the other side. His grandson went tumbling. Ko Ni crumpled. His blood spread across the ground.
A prominent member of the country’s marginalized Muslim minority, Ko Ni had been receiving death threats for months. He was treading a perilous path in Myanmar: openly calling for reforms meant to reduce the military’s dominant role in government. But his political idol, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, was in power. And so, he continued to work to squeeze the generals out of politics.
The gunshot that ended Ko Ni’s life was a flash of brutality that revealed a truth about Myanmar: Hopes for genuine democracy and ethnic harmony, largely pinned to Aung San Suu Kyi, have broken apart. They were shattered by the military, by Buddhist nationalism and, ultimately, by Aung San Suu Kyi’s inability or unwillingness to confront these forces.
Ko Ni believed that Aung San Suu Kyi, who’d gained world fame for championing democracy in Myanmar, would prevail over a military whose patronage and power reach into many corners of politics and business. That belief ended in tragedy.
In the weeks after Ko Ni’s murder, three former military officers were accused by police of organising his assassination by a hired gunman. Two have pleaded not guilty to murder at a trial in Yangon expected to end in the coming months. The third has evaded capture. The gunman admitted shooting Ko Ni, but says he acted under duress. No evidence has emerged that active military officials ordered the killing.
The official narrative, presented in court and to the public, portrays the three ex-officers as disaffected men swept up by extreme nationalism and acting in isolation.
But a Reuters examination of hundreds of pages of court records and corporate filings, including incorporation documents and director registers, uncovered close and enduring links between the security establishment and one of the men on trial. Accused of bankrolling the plot, he is a former military intelligence captain named Zeyar Phyo.
After leaving military intelligence in 2004, Zeyar Phyo, then in his late twenties, began building a web of companies that included communications and construction, according to court records and company documents maintained by Myanmar’s Directorate of Investment and Company Administration. His firms undertook work for the security services, such as building a police barracks, and won contracts from government ministries.
One of Zeyar Phyo’s businesses in Myanmar was given access by the military to communications equipment, a transaction recorded by supply forms - and a sign of friends in high places, according to a former officer.
His social circle includes a parliamentary deputy for the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party, a man who is also a former longtime assistant to the military’s current commander-in-chief.
During court testimony, Zeyar Phyo revealed that in his career as a military intelligence instructor, he “taught and led discussions on matters related to assassinations that had taken place in the international realm.” He didn’t elaborate.
Speaking to Reuters, Zeyar Phyo’s lawyer rejected allegations that her client remained connected to the military and received its communications equipment. Zeyar Phyo “just built some buildings for the police, some police homes,” said the lawyer, Pa Pa Win.
When authorities detained Zeyar Phyo in early February 2017, he was at a Buddhist monastery in Yangon and wearing monk’s robes as part of what he later told the court was an annual retreat. He’d become more religiously observant, according to his testimony, going deeper into a Buddhist culture that views Muslims with suspicion. At its extreme are ultra-nationalists who say they don’t accept the presence of Muslims in Myanmar.
Asked how far hardline Buddhism and nationalism had intertwined in Myanmar, Witha Dara, the head monk at the monastery where Zeyar Phyo was found, said he didn’t know how to respond. Then he added, “As for the Muslims’ religion, it’s not just in our country: There are problems all over the world. It’s based on them trying to gain more territory.”
After Zeyar Phyo’s arrest, a political specialist at the U.S. Embassy in Yangon wrote an analysis examining what was known about Ko Ni’s murder. What stood out was the proximity of some of the accused to military power, Lian Bawi Thang, the paper’s author, told Reuters. He pointed to the association between two of the alleged conspirators - Zeyar Phyo and another ex-officer named Aung Win Khine - and the former longtime assistant to the commander-in-chief. Photographs entered as evidence showed the three men spending time together.
U.S. Embassy spokesperson Aryani Manring said the embassy consulted “many actors” about the murder and provided information to Washington, but did not issue a formal report or “draw a legal determination” about what happened. “However,” she said, “the killing itself and problematic elements of the resulting trial, which has continued for over a year, raise serious questions about who was behind the murder and whether they will face accountability.”
Aung San Suu Kyi did not attend Ko Ni’s funeral. Nor did she speak of him in public until a televised memorial service a month later, where she praised him as a comrade and adviser. Behind closed doors, just after the murder, she said Ko Ni’s being “taken away from us” was a terrible blow and a warning to those left behind, according to a person familiar with her remarks.
Whatever Aung San Suu Kyi’s personal views, the assassination - and her weeks of public silence - sent a chilling message to the nation’s Muslims. Her party had already taken steps to publicly distance itself from Muslim politicians. The killing underlined the grave risk of talk of taming the military.
Asked about Aung San Suu Kyi’s reticence, Ko Ni’s son chose his words carefully. “People were quite unhappy about her absence the day of the funeral, as well as keeping too quiet,” said Thant Zin Oo, a software engineer living in Singapore.
Neither Aung San Suu Kyi’s office nor the Ministry of Defense replied to requests for comment for this story.
At the time he was gunned down, Ko Ni was lobbying to replace a constitution that entrenched the power of the generals. About four decades earlier, when Ko Ni enrolled at the Rangoon Arts and Science University, there was no indication of the role he would one day play in his nation’s history.
He’d moved to Rangoon – its name was later changed to Yangon by the military junta – from a hamlet of peanut farmers and fishermen near the Irrawaddy River in northern Myanmar. His family planted crops and worked at a small shop. A university classmate described Ko Ni’s economic status succinctly: “very poor.” He earned money as a day labourer to pay his way through his legal studies.
Ko Ni began work in a law office in the late 1970s, taking whatever cases he could find at local courts. He was an orderly man, said his wife, Tin Tin Aye. “You were not allowed to touch his books. If you picked up a book, you had to put it back exactly as you found it,” she recalled. “He always knew if you touched one of them.”
He taught law students on the side. Among them was Robert Sann Aung, a fellow Muslim. Ko Ni never spoke about his faith or his experience practicing law as a Muslim, said Robert Sann Aung. Nor was he interested at the time in joining Robert Sann Aung’s political activism that challenged Myanmar’s military rulers.
“Ko Ni was not a politician, he was only a lawyer,” said Robert Sann Aung, who is an attorney at the trial of the men accused of murdering Ko Ni, representing the family of a taxi driver killed in the melee after the shooting.
Ko Ni built a comfortable life. His wife gave birth to two daughters and a son. He lived with his family in a downtown apartment and played golf, winning a small silver trophy at a Myanmar Golf Club holiday tournament. And he loved to sing old Burmese songs. “If you didn’t know better, if you just heard his voice,” said his wife, “you would think he was Bamar” – the country’s majority Buddhist ethnic group.
Around him, though, Myanmar was changing. Aung San Suu Kyi returned home to care for her dying mother in April 1988, after some three decades abroad. Aung San Suu Kyi’s late father holds a place in Myanmar’s history similar to that of George Washington in America. He is revered as the father of the modern nation and its army, a man who helped end British colonial rule.
After Aung San Suu Kyi began giving speeches in Yangon, Ko Ni showed up, curious about the slender woman with flowers in her hair who spoke out against the military and co-founded a political party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). “Ko Ni would bring a water bottle, potato chips and sit and listen,” said a friend of his, Kyaw Nyein.
The new party contested elections in 1990 and won by a landslide, but the results weren’t recognised by the military junta. Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest. Activists were rounded up and imprisoned.
Ko Ni continued his life as a lawyer outside the public spotlight. In 1995, he opened a law firm with two other attorneys. As the office grew, he was the only Muslim, a fact that didn’t seem to bother Ko Ni.
Myanmar’s military announced an end to half a century of junta rule with a stage-managed election in 2010 that allowed generals to exchange their uniforms for public office. Six days after the vote, Aung San Suu Kyi was freed. She said she would run for a parliament seat in by-elections to be held in 2012.
Ko Ni was convinced the nation was finally at a turning point. “He said, ‘I can see the shadow of democracy and I am starting to have hope,’” recalled his wife, Tin Tin Aye.
Inspired by the dramatic changes, he released a 36-page booklet in January 2012. With a plain brown cover showing a hand with a ballot, its title conveyed his practical approach to life and law: “How to vote in the upcoming election.” The manual gave voters step-by-step instructions on how the process worked.
A photograph on Ko Ni’s living room wall shows him presenting a thin volume to Aung San Suu Kyi. The image is larger than a nearby inscription of a verse from the Quran, beseeching God for protection from evil, and two small panels of Islamic prayer.
For about five months, starting in November 2011, Ko Ni volunteered for Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, driving around the country in a Toyota to give instructional speeches about voting. As he made his way from town to town, he “talked about how much he respected” Aung San Suu Kyi, said his law office assistant of more than 20 years, a Buddhist named San Naing. “He wanted this country to become democratic, he wanted the country to improve and to be governed by educated people.”
After Aung San Suu Kyi won the by-election in 2012, she entered parliament, where she headed a committee on the rule of law. Ko Ni volunteered to help at every turn, providing written legal opinions about what was possible under Myanmar law.
He was among those who proposed a way around a constitutional provision that barred someone who had children with foreign citizenship from running for the presidency. The clause, drafted by the military government, held a specific effect: It prevented Aung San Suu Kyi, whose children were born in Britain, from being head of state. Instead of wrangling about that obstacle to the presidency, Ko Ni argued, there could be an entirely new position that allowed her to exercise similar powers. The title of State Counsellor, which she now holds, did just that.
He noted, also, that while the constitution set a high bar for amendments, its text didn’t contemplate the possibility of someone replacing it entirely. Why not write a different one?
In a 2016 interview with Myanmar media, Ko Ni explained: “If the military still focuses on protecting its interests, it will be impossible to change any part of the constitution within parliament. That’s why writing a new one is the best way to pursue a democratic constitution.”
He was stepping on dangerous ground.
For the military, the constitution ensures it has a dominant role. The document puts the generals in charge of nominating the heads of the ministries of defence, home affairs and border affairs, giving them control over the army, the police and frontier security. Through the General Administration Department they oversee the backbone of the nation’s bureaucracy.
The emergence of a Muslim lawyer at Aung San Suu Kyi’s side who was speaking about changing the constitution was “a direct threat to the military,” said Win Min, a senior research fellow at the Centre for Economic and Social Development, a Yangon research institute. “It coincided with the rising nationalist movement against Muslims.” Speaking in a low tone in a hotel cafe, Win Min added: “Given that he was a Muslim,” ultra-nationalists considered Ko Ni “a target.”
With the opening up of Myanmar, religious tensions bottled during military rule began to erupt. In western Rakhine State, an army crackdown that began in August 2017 sent more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims fleeing to Bangladesh. The United Nations has said the onslaught included widespread rape and murder, carried out with “genocidal intent.” In all, more than 900,000 Muslim refugees from the 2017 campaign and prior waves of bloodshed are now living in Bangladesh.
Ko Ni became the target of online smears, including allegations he was the leader of a militant Rohingya group.
The social media attacks were a warning bell: As a Muslim, Ko Ni had pushed beyond his allotted place in society.
Speaking of Ko Ni’s death, Han Tha Myint, a senior member of Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, said there were some people, “not a very significant portion,” in the country’s military who “want to warn the Muslim community.”
“And it has been quite effective, I think, because after that the Muslims have become very careful,” he said. “They have become a little bit silent. It is a sad thing but I think it’s quite effective.”
The growing anti-Muslim sentiment fed into the political calculations of Aung San Suu Kyi and her party.
In February 2014, Ko Ni was scheduled to speak at an event in Yangon hosted by the National League for Democracy to mark a holiday celebrating national unity. But a nationalist group, the Patriotic Myanmar Buddhist Monks’ Union, demanded that Ko Ni and a second speaker, also a Muslim, be removed from the program, for the sake of “our national affairs, our religion and our country.” The party cancelled the event. Explaining the decision, a local official from Aung San Suu Kyi’s party said he’d done his best to negotiate with the monks.
In remarks to a Myanmar newspaper about the episode, Ko Ni said: “I’m really worried for my country’s future.”
Nationalist Buddhist groups began suggesting that Aung San Suu Kyi and her party were selling out the nation to Muslims by failing to safeguard its “race and religion.” Confronted with those accusations, the National League for Democracy decided not to field any Muslim candidates in the 2015 elections. Aye Lwin, a Muslim community leader in Yangon whose family had long known Aung San Suu Kyi’s, said he met with her at the time to demand answers.
“She said we cannot afford to lose even one constituency, so please wait until we have the full-fledged democracy, please try to participate in our effort to achieve this, to overcome this transitional period,” Aye Lwin recalls her saying. “If there is any Muslim among the NLD candidates, the other side will have a chance to propagate that the NLD is using Muslims.”
But, Aye Lwin added, his voice rising, “If they really claim to be democrats, including Aung San Suu Kyi, democracy means human rights.”
The National League for Democracy swept the elections at the end of 2015. In April the following year, Aung San Suu Kyi became state counsellor, making her Myanmar’s de facto leader.
In power, she began to disappoint some longtime supporters. Among them was Thein Than Oo, a senior member of the Independent Lawyers’ Association of Myanmar, a group Aung San Suu Kyi had previously championed. Thein Than Oo recounted meeting Aung San Suu Kyi at a judicial reform conference. He told her he disagreed with her government’s proposal to make a law on peaceful assembly more restrictive. Aung San Suu Kyi responded with a smile and a small joke, said Thein Than Oo.
Meanwhile, Ko Ni was becoming more prominent as he pushed for constitutional reform. The threats against him mounted. He would answer his cell phone and a voice would say he was going to die. At least 10 threats against his life came in the eight months before his death, said Nay La, a lawyer representing Ko Ni’s family.
The conspiracy to murder Ko Ni began in April 2016 as three former officers met at a Yangon teahouse and discussed their “dissatisfaction” with Aung San Suu Kyi’s legal adviser, according to findings delivered at a press conference by the nation’s police chief and home affairs minister. Media coverage of those remarks was later presented in court.
At the teahouse were Zeyar Phyo, the retired military intelligence captain, and Aung Win Khine, a retired lieutenant colonel, according to the account by the police chief. They were joined by Lin Zaw Tun, an ex-colonel who served in the office of the military commander-in-chief, Min Aung Hlaing, from 2011 to 2015. Since 2016, Lin Zaw Tun has sat in parliament for the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party.
The three men had entered the elite Defense Services Academy within two years of one another in the 1990s. Lin Zaw Tun testified that he and Aung Win Khine served in the same battalion after graduation. He also told the court that Zeyar Phyo was a moral and noble person, devoutly religious and “unblemished by worldly pleasures.”
Photographs entered as evidence showed the three spending time together in Hong Kong in August 2016, smiling and posing for the camera. In his testimony, Lin Zaw Tun said that was the result of a chance encounter.
The police chief alleged that Aung Win Khine asked one of his brothers to find a gunman to kill Ko Ni. Zeyar Phyo in turn gave Aung Win Khine 100 million Myanmar kyat (about $80,000 at the time) to pay for the operation.
The shooter was an ex-convict named Kyi Lin, jailed previously for stealing religious artefacts. In court, Kyi Lin admitted killing Ko Ni but said he did so because his life had been threatened by another man, a version of events that didn’t hold up to police investigation, according to testimony.
After delivering the shot that killed Ko Ni that afternoon in January 2017, Kyi Lin ran off, a 9mm pistol in his hand and another gun tucked in his shoulder bag. He didn’t get far. A mob formed and chased him down.
Following Kyi Lin’s arrest, it emerged he had previously served time in prison with Aung Win Khine’s brother. That information helped lead investigators to the other accused, according to court testimony. Airport security video, entered as evidence, showed Aung Win Khine’s brother standing beside Kyi Lin on the day of the shooting. They appear to be speaking to one another. The footage also shows Aung Win Khine nearby.
Former intelligence officer Zeyar Phyo, who has let his hair and beard grow long in jail, pleaded not guilty to murder and abetment. He denied bankrolling the plot or participating in the teahouse meetings.
Aung Win Khine’s brother, Aung Win Zaw, pleaded not guilty to murder and conspiracy. Aung Win Khine has evaded arrest.
Aung Win Zaw’s lawyer said neither his client nor Aung Win Khine had anything to do with the killing. They “are former military people - if they had done it, it would have been more systematic,” the lawyer said.
The third man alleged to have attended those teahouse meetings, Lin Zaw Tun, the former assistant to the commander-in-chief, hasn’t been charged. Investigators say they found no link between him and the assassination.
Lin Zaw Tun told the court that on the evening after Ko Ni’s assassination, Aung Win Khine travelled to his house in the capital city of Naypyitaw. During that visit, Lin Zaw Tun said, he gave Aung Win Khine a million Myanmar kyat of his own money. He said Aung Win Khine told him he needed the cash for business purposes.
Lin Zaw Tun declined to answer Reuters’ questions about his relationship with Zeyar Phyo and Aung Win Khine. “I have answered that in court,” he said.
A Reuters review of evidence presented at the trial and company filings - including incorporation documents and director registers - shows the extent of Zeyar Phyo’s military connections. It is a world little understood outside Myanmar, of former soldiers who represent a deep well of influence, an intertwining of business, religion and friends in uniform.
After leaving the intelligence service in 2004, Zeyar Phyo struck deals involving the security services, including building a police barracks and importing machinery and tools for police use, according to court testimony and the website of one of his firms.
In 2012, he set up a company in Singapore, ZYP Pte Ltd, according to registration documents filed with the country’s Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority. The firm approached a Chinese state-owned shipyard about purchasing two patrol boats, according to the shipyard’s website. Payment came from a Myanmar-based company, a manager at the shipyard told Reuters. Zeyar Phyo was listed as the company’s managing director. An employee in one of Zeyar Phyo’s firms, a former major in the military who began working for him in 2012, testified that his employer imported boats for the police.
About five months before Ko Ni was killed, employees of Zeyar Phyo received communications equipment from the military, according to military supply forms found during police searches and entered as evidence in the trial. During his testimony, Zeyar Phyo acknowledged that forms showing the equipment transfer, stamped by a military department and bearing his company’s name, were “legitimate documents.”
A former Myanmar military officer told Reuters the gear that Zeyar Phyo’s company received from or turned over to the military department, including a transceiver and a “main board support encryption card,” taken together suggests point-to-point communication designed to avoid a third party listening in. The former officer, who reviewed a copy of the supply forms and is familiar with the requisition process, said the equipment transfer showed Zeyar Phyo had contacts in the highest echelons of the army. Military staff would only sign out such equipment to a civilian with the permission of top brass, the former officer said.
When police searched the offices of one of Zeyar Phyo’s companies, they found a disc with the teachings of an ultranationalist Buddhist monk named Wirathu, according to court evidence. In the past Wirathu has called Muslims the “enemy.” In a speech about Muslims posted online last year, Wirathu asked a crowd, “Sometimes I wonder, when these guys eat, do they eat with their ass?” As the crowd laughed, he asked, “When they use the toilet, do they use their mouths?”
Zeyar Phyo told the court that the disc was not found in his personal work space and that he is “not a religious extremist.”
Wirathu was photographed in 2015 accepting a donation of 20 million Myanmar kyat (about $15,500 at the time) from Lin Zaw Tun, the former assistant to the commander-in-chief.
After Ko Ni’s murder, Wirathu posted a comment on Facebook. Myanmar’s constitution and the political power it enshrines for the military, he said, is “important for the security of the entire race,” an allusion to the Buddhist majority. Then he thanked the men accused of killing Ko Ni.
Reached by phone, Wirathu declined to comment for this story.
Despite the threats against his life as the tide of anti-Muslim sentiment rose in Myanmar, Ko Ni told his wife that the only option he saw was to keep working for democracy.
That’s what he’d been doing when he got off the plane at Yangon International Airport on the day he was shot. He was returning from Indonesia. A delegation of Myanmar officials and activists had travelled there to discuss lessons for transitioning away from military dictatorship. Among them was a group of Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims. They’d agreed to nominate small teams of negotiators to talk about reconciliation between their communities in Rakhine State.
“Everyone believed that this was part of the road to peace,” said Mya Aye, a pro-democracy activist who was on the trip.
Ko Ni’s assassination, he said, put an end to that. About seven months later, the military’s crackdown in Rakhine would send hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh.
Naing Swe Oo, a former military officer who runs a defence studies centre in Yangon, was also on the trip. He said he heard the gunshot that killed Ko Ni.
In Naing Swe Oo’s estimation, the military was not involved. But after Ko Ni continued to pursue constitutional reform, he said, there were people who thought such talk “may be dangerous for the country.”
In today’s Myanmar, that brought a bullet in broad daylight, and the blood of a man who hoped democracy was coming.
reporting by Tom Lasseter; editing by Janet McBride and Peter Hirschberg