A year into its fledgling democracy, many in Burma fear the political freedoms and peace Aung San Suu Kyi brought to the country are already under attack.
Myanmar’s military dictatorship has ended, but fear is still in the air. A terrifying assassination has brought these protesters onto the streets. They see the murder as a sign their new democracy is under fire. It was an astonishingly audacious attack here at the international airport in the full view of security and police.
This is the moment before the gunman pulled the trigger. The victim was a high profile legal advisor to Myanmar’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. He’s holding his 3 year old grandson.
The gunman ran over to the taxi rank where he shot one of the driver’s dead before being grabbed by onlookers and handed over to the police. But this was no ordinary murder or even terrorist attack. The target was a long-standing pro-democracy campaigner and one of the highest profile Muslims in this country.
U Ko Ni died instantly. He’d been campaigning to change the constitution which still gives the military control of defence, home affairs and border security, plus a quarter of the seats in Parliament.
They won’t say it on camera, but many people here believe U Ko Ni was killed because he was threatening the military’s power. And since the police answer to the military they’re fearful those behind the killing won’t be brought to justice.This is a remarkable show of defiance by young people who want to say they are angry at what happened to U Ko Ni. They feel that if those behind this can get away with it what next for their democracy?
I want to understand more about why the killing of U Ko Ni has unleashed such foreboding. After free elections last year Aung San Suu Kyi, once the world’s most famous political prisoner, became Myanmar’s leader, but she has to share power with the military and I’ve heard people who criticise them are still being jailed.
Myo Yan Naung Thaung is a prominent member of Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, but he’s in jail for criticising the Army Commander-in-Chief on Facebook. To find out more I’m meeting his wife, Chau Chau. She tells me how under military rule her husband spent years in jail for supporting Aung San Suu Kyi.
REPORTER: You must have thought that the days of being locked up for your political views had gone.
CHAU CHAU, WIFE OF JAILED NLD MEMBER: Yes.
REPORTER: How does it feel? I mean, you know, you were part of that student movement that brought this new democracy and you think this is now a free country and then your husband gets locked up for something he’s written on Facebook, not even a bad post. There’s nothing rude there, there’s nothing untrue there, is there? How does that make you feel?
CHAU CHAU: We understand that some of the parts are not changing, especially concerning the military and the judiciary system.
REPORTER: And freedom of speech.
CHUA CHAU: Freedom of speech.
Before democracy, the military jailed opponents with impunity. Now they silence critics using an anti-defamation law that the Generals introduced and Aung San Suu Kyi hasn’t repealed.
REPORTER: What has it been like for you?
CHAU CHAU: I have to support him as much as I can so I cannot be weak. I cannot be down, so I must be brave and I must try my best as much as I can.
It’s just astonishing really. I’m finding it quite hard to get my head around the idea that you can write a piece of political criticism, an attack on a General, who’s really a politician, but it’s perfectly within the bounds of normal political debate, it wasn’t really that rude or defamatory and then find yourself in prison for four months awaiting trial, and possibly months more if you’re found guilty. I mean the idea that there is freedom of speech online in this country is clearly farcical.
Aung San Suu Kyi is such a hallowed figure here, people rarely criticise her openly. Off camera, people tell me free speech is one of the number of issues on which she has stayed silent since taking power - either unwilling to speak out or unable.
Meanwhile, there’s news about the assassination of the lawyer, U Ko Ni. The killer, who was captured at the scene, has talked under interrogation, according to the police. They reveal he’s claiming to have been hired by a retired Army officer, who’s now on the run.
With the prime suspects being ex-Army officers the question is can the military investigate itself? They control the Home Affairs Ministry, which in turn controls the police, and so activists and human rights lawyers are very concerned the government isn’t doing enough.
One of those concerned lawyers is Robert San Aung, internationally known for his human rights work. He was a friend of U Ko Ni. He tells me he suspects those really behind his murder are retired officers linked to military intelligence.
REPORTER: Why do you believe people in the former military intelligence apparatus were involved in this? Why would they do it?
ROBERT SAN AUN, HUMAN RIGHTS LAWYER (Translation): They want to get their power back. Former military intelligence officers are unhappy that they were defeated. They can’t forget that they were against Aung San Suu Kyi their whole lives.
I’ve arrived just as he’s about to attend an emergency meeting of Myanmar’s human rights lawyers.
ROBERT SAN AUN (Translation): This case is not a normal case, it was an act of terrorism.
Listening are U Ko Ni’s widow, Tin Tin Aye, and one of his daughters. There’s a moment of silence in U Ko Ni’s memory. Like him, most here supported Aung San Suu Kyi for decades. They’re all acutely aware that even though her close ally has been murdered she is, once again, staying silent.
YIN NEW KHINE (Translation): My name is Yin New Khine and I am the daughter of U Ko Ni. My father didn’t die as a normal person but as a martyr. My father was a brave, educated and humble person. He did everything he could for the country.
Well, that was quite a surprise when Ko Ni’s widow and daughter arrived at the meeting and a very powerful moment when she spoke of her own sadness. The message they got back from the lawyers in the room was that they would try and continue the work he started, but it’s clear they are very sceptical about the investigation, or the possibility of taking this forward in the current political climate. I want to ask Robert why he thinks Aung San Suu Kyi has stayed silent about the murder.
REPORTER: Do you think she has any real power or is she just a puppet?
ROBERT SAN AUN (Translation): She doesn’t have full power because she doesn’t have control of the military yet. She is just negotiating with them.
Aung San Suu Kyi - a Nobel Peace Prize winner - is staying silent on another violent scandal too. The UN wants to investigate the Myanmar military for crimes against humanity involving allegations of mass killing and rape. You wouldn’t know it here in Yangon, but hundreds of miles away in the state of Rakhine, there is alleged humanitarian scandal going on involving a persecuted minority of Muslims known as the Rohingya.
The Burmese media doesn’t really cover it, and the international press is denied access to the area. So we rely on a network of activists to find out what’s going on, and I’m on my way to meet one of them now. This Rohingya Muslim wants to remain anonymous because he believes he risks jail or even being attacked for speaking out. He gathers and shares video of what he says is happening in Rakhine state to his people.
ROHINGYA MALE (Translation): This is from my network. I can guarantee it. I can show you the victim’s family. He was on his way back from grocery shopping.
The crisis intensified last year after Rohingya militants killed nine police officers. In the ensuing crackdown, there have been many reports of widespread killing and rape by security forces and Buddhist extremists.
ROHINGYA MALE (Translation): He was killed by extremists. The police were informed but no action was taken.
REPORTER: Have any of your own relatives been killed?
ROHINGYA MALE (Translation): Yes, many.
It’s thought 70,000 Rohingya’s have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh in the last six months.
REPORTER: What has Aung San Suu Kyi done about this problem since coming to power?
ROHINGYA MALE (Translation): Nothing has been done so far. She’s a Nobel Peace Prize winner. She could have looked at this from a human rights perspective but she hasn’t.
Aung San Suu Kyi doesn’t have any control over the Army or what it does, but she does control the Information Ministry. U Ye Naing is spokesman for the Ministry. It’s dismissed reports of the killing and rape of Rohingya Muslims as fake news.
REPORTER: So these are made here?
U YE NAING, SPOKESMAN OF THE MINISTRY OF INFORMATION: Yeah, yeah.
He takes me to the printing press for the state run daily newspaper, the official view of the world from Aung San Suu Kyi’s government. I show U Ye Naing the Rohingya activist’s video.
U YE NAING (Translation): I have never seen this video before. I don’t know the source. Recently we’ve noticed a lot of fake news coming out of the Rakhine crisis.
REPORTER: What kinds of things are used as fake news? Can you give me some examples?
U YE NAING (Translation): We’ve noticed they use pictures from other countries and claim they’re from Rakhine State.
REPORTER: You don’t allow the international media to go there to see for ourselves, do you?
U YE NAING (Translation): We think it’s not only dangerous for journalists but also for the people they interview.
REPORTER: You told me you used to work for the military government and you used to put out propaganda, so it was your job to tell lies on behalf of the military government. How can I believe you now just because the government in Burma has changed?
U YE NAING (Translation): There’s no propaganda in this government.
One of Aung San Suu Kyi’s biggest promises was to end the wars raging inside Myanmar. So I’m heading into the countryside to areas often off limits to foreigners. It’s early morning and we’re on the road to the state of Shan. Now this is one of the areas where there’s been a lot of fighting over the last year between the military and various rebel groups who want autonomy. And it was places like this that Aung San Suu Kyi promised to bring peace.
Myanmar’s complex mix of ethnicities mean Aung San Suu Kyi has inherited a country where the military are fighting insurgencies in many states. I soon see refugee camps.
REPORTER: Is it all of these?
It’s a big village on the edge of a village, rows and rows of these makeshift tents. It looks like they’ve been here for a while some of them.
U Nyi Khaung was the head man of his village before they fled. His people are from the Ta’ang minority. They came here just before Aung San Suu Kyi came to power, but since then the fighting has intensified.
REPORTER: Did you have hopes for Aung San Suu Kyi when she came into government?
U NYI KHAUNG (Translation): We relied on Aung San Suu Kyi, that’s why we’re suffering now. That’s how I feel. We have nothing to look forward to.
I’m told about a village called Nyaung Maunng that was recently attacked by the army. It’s high in the mountains above us, several hours away. When we reach Nyaung Maunng it’s a shocking sight. This village has been caught in the crossfire of fighting many times over the years, but this time it’s been devastated by a helicopter gunship. The villagers are anxious to talk, but afraid, and some ask us to hide their faces.
REPORTER: Can you tell me what happened here?
VILLAGER (Translation): The aircraft started bombing our houses. We came out of our bunker. We saw they were destroyed.
One of the men shows me the aftermath. The army told them they attacked because rebel soldiers were hiding here, something the villagers deny.
VILLAGER (Translation): The house was right there.
And it stood just here on this ground, so they have flattened it. There were three people inside and they were all killed. The three who died were the husband, grandmother and father-in-law of this woman - Kin Tan U. She and her seven children survived the attack, but only just.
REPORTER: How are you living now? Who’s looking after you?
KIN TAN U, VILLAGER (Translation): My husband was the only one who worked. He took care of the whole family.
Kin Tan U’s leg had to be amputated.
KIN TAN U (Translation): On top of everything I’ve just given birth, three day ago. I don’t know how I’m going to raise my children. I don’t know what to do.
Kin Tan U is one of around 11,000 people in Northern Shan thought to be displaced by recent fighting between the army and rebel groups. It’s a war hidden not just from the West, but from most Burmese people too.
We’re rushing and it’s late and the light is going down because it’s taken 6 hours to get here. And we shouldn’t even be this far into the country, foreign journalists aren’t supposed to stray off the main road. So it’s very hard to show you the war and the fighting, but what we’ve found here is evidence of the human suffering, of how homes have been destroyed and lives have been lost.
This whole trip to Shan has been a real eye-opener and a world away from the big cities where they may complain that the pace of change from this new government isn’t quite what it should be. Here it’s as though the new government hasn’t really changed anything because people here are caught in a tyranny between armed groups from ethnic minorities and the Myanmar military.
Back in Yangon I meet up again with the human rights lawyer, Robert San Aung. I want the latest on the investigation into the murder of his friend, U Ko Ni.
ROBERT SAN AUNG (Translation): Three teas.
The Home Affairs Ministry has just claimed the assassination was ordered by a small rogue group of ex-army officers, led by Colonel Aung Win Khein. They claim there’s no evidence anyone more senior was involved.
REPORTER: The police say there’s no conspiracy.
ROBERT SAN AUNG (Translation): No.
REPORTER: That it was just a personal grudge.
ROBERT SAN AUNG: Yes.
REPORTER: You don’t believe it? But what do you suspect is really going on?
ROBERG SAN AUNG (Translation): There might be some pretty big chiefs behind this event.
I want to interview Aung San Suu Kyi, but my request is rejected. She’s given very few interviews. However, a leading member of her party is willing to speak to me. I’ve come to meet U Win Thein, Aung San Suu Kyi’s right-hand man for many years and a former political prisoner himself. He’s now one of the most senior people in the National League for Democracy. He’s also been following the U Ko Ni investigation.
U WIN THEIN, SENIOR MEMBER NLD (Translation): Did you attend yesterday the briefing from the interior minister?
REPORTER: No, but I’ve seen it, I’ve seen it. Yes.
U WIN THEIN: Very funny.
REPORTER: You think it’s nonsense?
U WIN THEIN: Nonsense, yes.
REPORTER: So you don’t believe your own Home Ministry?
U WIN THEIN: Of course, I have the right to disagree with them.
REPORTER: So you believe there is a conspiracy that goes up to…?
U WIN THEIN: I won’t say there is conspiracy. It’s maybe a group of people who are undermining our struggle.
REPORTER: Do you feel you actually have control of this country, because the military control, the Home Affairs Ministry, which is the police, which is really fundamental. So do you really have power?
U WIN THEIN: Not yet, but we must admit that we cannot control them. Many activists accuse us we have betrayed our cause. We are collaborating with the ex-generals. So I told them, you don’t know Aung San Suu Kyi. If she grabs a political objective for the future she never abandons or loses sight of that objective.
REPORTER: So she’s playing a long game?
U WIN THEIN: Of course.
The message is clear, democracy takes time. But if they are putting all their faith in being able to persuade the Generals to change the constitution the murder of U Ko Ni shows that some people will fight it at all costs.
Today is the memorial to U Ko Ni one month after his death and Aung San Suu Kyi has announced that she’s coming. Now that’s caused quite a commotion because she didn’t go to his funeral and she hasn’t spoken publicly about his death. So everyone’s come to see what she’s going to say and her supporters here in Yangon are here in force.
The Lady, as she’s often known, who became famous for touching everyone in this country, is a more remote figure now. Everyone is held back from getting too close. Her speech about U Ko Ni is unemotional and cautious, with no mention of who might have been behind it. She did at least speak about his passion, changing the constitution.
AUNG SAN SUU KYI (Translation): The constitution is the backbone of a country. Only if our backbone is straight will our future be straight. U Ko Ni understood that perfectly.
Outside I wait to see if she’ll answer a direct question about the murder.
REPORTER: Daw Su, was this an attack on democracy? Daw Su, a word about U Ko Ni.
Well, things have certainly changed from the days when Aung San Suu Kyi was an opposition activist craving the attention of the foreign media. Now she seeks to avoid our questions at all costs.
Before I leave I want to see the place where Aung San Suu Kyi was kept by the Generals under house arrest for 15 years. This was where she became an icon of democracy. Today it’s a tourist attraction.
When you’ve seen pictures of that house through history it is still an amazing thing to stand here and just get a glimpse of it. And yes, the high walls these days are here to protect Aung San Suu Kyi, not stop her from escaping.
And yet there is a sense, having been here, that she is still trapped in this system of government where she can’t effect anything to do with the army or the police, and she seems reluctant to speak out the way she did when she was an opposition freedom fighter. In a way, she’s made herself a political prisoner, the Generals still deciding when she’ll be free.
The prime suspect in the murder of U Ko Ni, Colonel Aung Win Khein, is still on the run. Police say they are not looking for anyone else.
joshua min htut
16th May 2017