Lies are nothing new in Myanmar

Labourers paint block paving at the parliament in the soulless, under-populated capital, Nay Pyi Taw. The population is kept far away from their political leaders. Source: Asean Economist

With a prominent member of Myanmar’s government assassinated at Yangon’s main airport and the country’s revered leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, increasingly under fire from the international community over Rakhine State’s ethnic turmoil, democracy is likely to be the main victim.

The country has a long tradition of secrecy and isolationism and the recent killing will probably encourage its leaders to withdraw further from the public and engage less with their voters. Meanwhile, increasing hostility from the international community over the plight of the Rohingya in Rakhine State will reinforce the tendency to retreat inside the giant ministries in the surreal, ghostly capital, Nay Pyi Taw.

Ko Ni, a high-profile human rights lawyer and legal adviser to State Counsellor Suu Kyi, was fatally shot at Yangon’s airport on Sunday.

The 65-year-old was the most prominent Muslim in the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD). He was shot at close range while he was holding his grandchild, said Aung Myint Oo, an airport security guard.

A taxi driver, Ne Win, who tried to stop the attacker, was also shot dead before other taxi drivers apprehended him.

The killer, Kyi Lyn, of Mandalay is yet to give a motive. Ko Ni had written six books on human rights and democracy, and was actively involved in the interfaith peace movement.

Amnesty International, which worked with Ko Ni on human rights, called for an independent investigation into his death.

“The killing of prominent lawyer U Ko Ni in Yangon today is an appalling act that has all the hallmarks of an assassination,” said Josef Benedict, a regional Amnesty representative.

“It demands that the authorities immediately launch a thorough, independent and impartial investigation,” he said. “The authorities must send a clear message that such violence will not be tolerated and will not go unpunished.”

The NLD government has a poor track record since taking office last April of launching investigations.

A government-appointed investigation is due to publish its final report on whether atrocities have been committed against the Rohingya Muslim community.

Ko Ni would appear to have been a potentially valuable mediator in the Rakhine crisis and now there seems very little reason to be positive about the situation.

While the international media and NGOs are banned from the area on the Bangladesh border, Nay Pyi Taw established a commission under former junta general and military-appointed Vice President Myint Swe into allegations that the Tatmadaw has been raping and killing civilians.

Suu Kyi vehemently denies any allegations of military misconduct.

She has no regular questioning from MPs in parliament, despite holding the role of prime minister in all but name, and there has not been a proper press conference since the landmark November 2015 general election.

The Nobel Peace laureate also remains silent as the state-run newspapers denounce the international media coverage of the Rohingya crisis.

Suu Kyi has defended the military’s actions as counter-terrorism operations to apprehend Islamist militants since reported attacks on police outposts on October 9.

She has refused to speak to the international media about the crisis since October.

A Rakhine administrator, Than Htut Kyaw, told the BBC that the reports of atrocities were fabricated.

“We have nothing to hide,” he said. “The national government is releasing all the true facts about this situation. The teachings of Burmese Buddhism do not allow raping. It’s all just rumours.”

The Rohingya have made numerous videos on smartphones as evidence of abuse.

The BBC’s Jonah Fisher said: “Over the last few months I have seen a steady stream of appalling videos of women with bruises on their faces saying they were raped, bodies of children lying on the ground and burnt skulls in piles of ash.

“Verifying them is difficult but not impossible. Often there are multiple sources from the same location and some organisations have discreet networks of people on the ground.

“[T]hose videos are important snapshots that show without doubt that something awful has been taking place.

Suu Kyi’s office reportedly posted a picture of Sylvester Stallone as Rambo as an example of bogus pictures that the Rohingya use to support fake claims.

After testimonies from refugees in Bangladesh have appeared in the international media, the security forces are regularly deployed to the claimants’ villages in Rakhine State and their family or neighbours are compelled to sign statements denouncing the accounts.

Officials that Suu Kyi directly employs are trying to discount Rohingya accounts and repeating the army’s denials without question. Most people understand that Suu Kyi has a delicate relationship with a military that could displace her government at any point. But does she need to be so vocal in her defence of troops on the ground, in defiance of the evidence of almost all major international institutions, NGOs and media outlets?

Suu Kyi’s commission to investigate the Rakhine crisis is headed by the notorious Myint Swe, selected as vice president by the 25 per cent bloc of military MPs that are guaranteed their seats by the 2008 Constitution.

By refusing to answer the media’s questions, Suu Kyi is drawing on a long tradition of Burmese rulers. The joy of the 2015 election night now seems distant indeed.