'Patriotism' behind U Ko Ni assassination, says minister

YANGON — Myanmar’s police chief and home affairs minister have declared the investigation into the killing of U Ko Ni over, following the arrest of a fourth suspect — a former Military Intelligence official — earlier this month.

U Zay Yar Phyo, a former military officer, was arrested at a monastery in Yangon’s Tarmwe Township on February 3. He is accused of orchestrating the prominent lawyer’s death together with U Aung Win Khine, a former lieutenant-colonel who remains at large.

Police were led to Zay Yar Phyo by Aung Win Khine’s brother, U Aung Win Zaw. A former lieutenant in the Tatmadaw, he is accused of hiring U Kyi Lin, the gunman who killed Ko Ni, and was arrested in Kayin State on January 30.

Zay Yar Phyo was “hiding” in the monastery as a monk when he was arrested, police said. A search of his home on February 8 uncovered four Citizenship Scrutiny Cards, including one bearing the name Zay Yar Phyo, and one walkie-talkie.

Minister for Home Affairs Lieutenant-General Kyaw Swe, Deputy Minister for Home Affairs Major-General Aung Soe and Myanmar Police Force chief Police Major-General Zaw Win announced the arrest and conclusion of their investigation at a press conference at Yangon’s Drug Elimination Museum on Saturday.

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Lt-Gen Kyaw Swe said police only had to apprehend and interview Aung Win Khine to complete the case. “We are still investigating him,” the minister said.

The press conference was called after details of Zay Yar Phyo’s arrest were leaked and widely reported in local media this week.

Ko Ni, a legal adviser to the National League for Democracy and one of the country’s most prominent Muslims, was shot fatally outside Yangon International Airport on January 29 in a brazen attack that shocked the country.

‘Extreme patriotism’ to blame

Journalists were told at the press conference that the murder was nine months in the planning. According to police, Zay Yar Phyo and Aung Win Khine hatched the plan to kill Ko Ni at a teashop in Tarmwe in April 2016.

Lt-Gen Kyaw Swe said they were motivated by “extreme patriotism”.

“When we were investigating, we discovered it was a case of patriotism. This extreme patriotism … killed [U Ko Ni], according to our findings,” the minister said.

Pol Maj-Gen Zaw Win said Zay Yar Phyo and Aung Win Khine were “angry” at “what U Ko Ni had said and done on social media”, adding that the pair acted immaturely.

He did not explain exactly what Ko Ni had written that made them so angry.

While riding together in a car in April 2016, Aung Win Khine said that “it would be better if we killed U Ko Ni”, the police chief told reporters.

He said the information was based on interviews with around 70 people, including the accused.

Case closed?

Despite insisting the investigation was over, comments made by the senior military and police officials at the press conference on Saturday suggested that they were still considering other possibilities.

Bizarrely, Lt-Gen Kyaw Swe responded by one question from a journalist by saying that “the community behind U Ko Ni” might have been responsible for his assassination.

“U Ko Ni talked about [issues] before the [2015] election and then the National League for Democracy won. Did U Ko Ni achieve what he said he would do before? We have to consider that the community behind him might assassinate U Ko Ni,” Lt-Gen Kyaw Swe said.

He did not elaborate on which “community” he was referring to, but journalists were in no doubt he was referring to the Muslim community.

But questions have also been asked over the suspects’ links to both Buddhist nationalist group Ma Ba Tha — formally known in English as the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion — and the Union Solidarity and Development Party.

At the press conference, police confirmed that USDP lawmaker U Lin Zaw Tun, who represents Monghpyak in the Pyithu Hluttaw, was present when the plot to kill Ko Ni was first discussed at the Tarmwe teashop in April 2016. He is not considered a suspect, they said, but did not elaborate.

About two months before the general election, Lin Zaw Tun — a former colonel — personally donated K40 million (about US$30,000) to Ma Ba Tha. The donation was accepted by the group’s figurehead, U Wirathu.

At the press conference, the senior military and police officials said they did not believe Ma Ba Tha was involved in Ko Ni’s death.

Who is Zay Yar Phyo?

Journalists were told that Zay Yar Phyo graduated from the elite Defense Services Academy as part of its 38th intake. He retired as a captain in 2004, in unclear circumstances, and established four companies, including 38-Group Company.

According to the Directorate of Investment and Company Administration, Zay Yar Phyo is managing director of 38-Group, which is registered to an address in Tarmwe’s Min Ye Kyaw Swar Housing.

One of his other companies was established together with Aung Win Khine and Zay Yar Phyo’s wife, police said at the press conference.

Police said the gunman, Kyi Lin, is facing a charge of culpable homicide as well as offences under section 19(f) of the Weapons Act and 13(1) of the Immigration Act.

Aung Win Zaw is also facing culpable homicide and Weapons Act charges, while Zay Yar Phyo is facing charges of forgery for purpose of cheating and cheating and dishonestly inducing delivery of property. He is also facing a charge under section 67 of the Telecommunications Law. Aung Win Khine, meanwhile, is facing a charge of murder. 

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