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U Ko Ni: A legacy to be continued

Supporters put a National League for Democracy party flag over the coffin of the late Ko Ni on Monday in Rangoon. (Photo: Reuters)

Many worthy tributes have already been paid to the late U Ko Ni in the days since he was tragically taken away from us. And much more remains to be said.

U Ko Ni was a man of knowledge, focus and dedication, and his political contribution is more impressive than many are aware of. It is sad that he was not able to complete his important work; his life cut short just when he was most needed. It is a loss for all those striving for democracy in Myanmar, and the best way to honour him is to work hard to fill the gap — as a towering advocate for political and legal reform — that he leaves behind. It might be a difficult task.

I considered U Ko Ni a friend, but didn’t reach Yangon in time to pay my respects at his funeral on Monday. Less than 48 hours after the assassination on Sunday evening, I went to Yangon International Airport’s Terminal 1 to mourn his passing, standing between the grey pillars where he was shot dead. There were no signs of the tragic event. No flowers. No makeshift memorial. No written messages of condolence. Nothing. Just the usual noise of taxis idling and the chatter of oblivious travellers passing by the crime scene. Life goes on. New arrivals. New departures. New laws will be passed in Parliament.

The world keeps spinning. Maybe it is natural, even though it is strange to me, but it made me write these words to honour a man who created noise simply by upholding the principle of justice. When things are moving forward there is always friction, and noise. The clamouring for justice must continue to reverberate in the concert hall that is Myanmar’s many and varied voices, for U Ko Ni’s sake.

He was many things. A lawyer. A husband. A father. A grandfather. A political adviser. A constitutional expert. A Muslim. But in my experience, he always separated his private life from his professional life, as best he could. His professional life was all about legal issues and politics. He was not the country’s greatest Muslim lawyer or adviser. He was simply one of the best — a scholar of Burma’s 2008 Constitution and a leading legal adviser to the current government. As a lawyer he was committed to justice, improving legislation and making sure that everyone was equal under the law. Laws are all about simplifying the very complex relationship between the state and the individual, and making that interaction logical and consistent. Surely a difficult task.

I knew him to be an honest man. Straight-forward. Extremely competent. Dedicated. He took a grass-roots perspective, but with the ability to analyse things from a distance. “On the street,” things can get chaotic, confusing and sometimes driven by self-interest. From a mountaintop, on the other hand, you discover structures, logic and principles, but with the risk of losing the human touch. The best among us are able to combine the two perspectives to understand the interplay of varying interests, and try to define what is right and feasible. I believe U Ko Ni was brilliant in this exercise.

He was never an advocate for one particular group, but tried to find an inclusive path forward for everyone. In this sense, he was a lawyer to all. He was trying to find a place for everyone in Myanmar in his conception of nation-building. When all are born equal, why should there be more than one category of citizen? I still haven’t heard a good argument for this contravention of a basic human right. As a lawyer, U Ko Ni could not see any logic behind something so divisive as the 1982 Citizenship Law.

In our many conversations in Yangon and Oslo, he had two main areas of concern. First, how to make the constitution represent the interests of the people more than those of the military? A constitution is a contract between the state and its people, just as elections are contracts between shifting parliaments, governments and their voters. If a non-elected institution occupies the political domain, the contract is weakened, because some executive and judicial powers are simply not accountable to the people.

U Ko Ni’s other concern was how to build a legal framework reflecting the diversity of Myanmar. His thoughts on federalism are well-known, and he combined his analytic, mountaintop perspective with frequent travels to the ethnic states and meetings with leaders from ethnic minorities. He pointed out the fact that though the constitution does grant the military a veto over charter amendments, there is no clause against abolishing it entirely. It could be done with a simple majority. U Ko Ni knew as well as anyone that such a move would provoke the military, but could still be a last resort and a tool to exert pressure if the military was not willing to compromise. Of course, this view also provoked many in the military.

It is not right to say that U Ko Ni played an important role in the peace process, but he surely would have down the line if he had not been so cruelly assassinated. It is no space for lawyers while military offensives are ongoing, or ceasefires are being negotiated. But when Myanmar reaches a point when the fighting stops and a political solution is to be sought, a constitutional compromise and a federal system must be the outcome. Even if the military continues to refuse to allow constitutional amendments, U Ko Ni might have been able to bend the constitution in the right direction.

I always smile when I think of his story about how the state counsellor position was designed. After a drafting process that spanned years, the 2008 Constitution was supposed to be devoid of loopholes and end-arounds. Nonetheless, after two rejected title proposals, both very amusing, the state counsellor title was agreed upon by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and U Ko Ni found a way through the constitutional maze. As Leonard Cohen put it: “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” U Ko Ni was able to find the crack.

As our guest in Oslo in June 2015, he talked about the danger of increased political violence. He was worried for the future. Not for his own future, but for what it might mean vis-à-vis the military’s involvement in politics and on the battlefield; extreme nationalism; and the exploitation of race and religion for political ends. Unfortunately, he became a victim of the same violence he worried about.

U Ko Ni will no longer share his thoughts with people like me at his office on Yangon’s 42nd Street. I will miss that. But I will keep on visiting the place between the grey pillars outside Terminal 1, as a reminder of the values he represented. It is time to continue his brave contribution to the nation.

Audun Aagre is director of the Norwegian Burma Committee.