Thousands attend funeral of slain Myanmar Muslim lawyer

Yangon (AFP) - Thousands of mourners gathered on Monday to bury a top Muslim lawyer and adviser to Aung San Suu Kyi who was gunned down outside Yangon airport in what the ruling party said was a political assassination.

Ko Ni, a legal adviser to the National League for Democracy, was shot in the head on Sunday afternoon as he waited outside the airport while holding his grandson.

His killing sent shockwaves through both Myanmar's already hard-pressed Muslim community and the ruling party in a country where political killings are rare.

Police have not said what prompted the murder, but Ko Ni, 63, was a prominent Muslim figure who spoke out against the increasingly vocal anti-Islamic sentiments of Buddhist hardliners and criticised the powerful military's grip on power.

Distraught relatives were joined by senior NLD figures, imams, Buddhist monks and members of the public who crammed into a Muslim cemetery on the outskirts of Yangon on Monday afternoon.

"This is a very cruel and ugly tragedy," Moe Zaw, a 37-year-old Muslim mourner told AFP.

Both the NLD and Ko Ni's family suspect he was targeted because of his politics.

"We strongly denounce the assassination of Ko Ni like this as it is a terrorist act against the NLD's policies," the NLD said in a statement, describing him as an "irreplacable" aide to Suu Kyi.

She has yet to make a statement on the killing.

A taxi driver who tried to stop the gunman was also killed. The attacker, named by police as 53-year-old Kyi Lin, was arrested at the scene.

A harrowing photo circulating on social media showed what appeared to be the moment the gunman, standing behind Ko Ni as he held his grandson, took aim.

His daughter Yin Nwe Khaing said she brought her young son to greet his grandfather at the airport, adding her father had made enemies because he had been a prominent Muslim voice.

"As we are from a different religion there were many people who didn't like and hated it. I think that also could be a reason (for his murder)," she told DVB TV.

- Anti-Muslim sentiment -

Ko Ni had just returned from a government delegation visit to Indonesia where regional leaders were discussing sectarian tensions in Rakhine state.

Myanmar's army has waged a crackdown on the mainly Muslim Rohingya community which has prompted tens of thousands of them to flee the area.

Ko Ni had previously criticised religious laws pushed by Buddhist nationalists.

Myanmar's border regions have simmered for decades with ethnic minority insurgencies but it is rare for prominent political figures to be murdered in Yangon -- the country's booming and largely safe commercial hub.

However in recent years Myanmar has witnessed a surge of anti-Muslim sentiment, fanned by hardline Buddhist nationalists.

Around five percent of Myanmar's population is Muslim.

Suu Kyi has herself faced criticism for not fielding a single Muslim candidate during the 2015 elections, a move which analysts said was a sop to Buddhist hardliners.

She has also faced international censure for her failure to criticise the crackdown on the Rohingya in Rakhine state.

Since the launch of the crackdown in October at least 66,000 Rohingya have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh, alleging security forces are carrying out a campaign of rape, torture and mass killings.

Suu Kyi and the military have denied allegations of abuse.

Senior NLD leaders, including party patron Tin Oo, visited Ko Ni's family before the funeral.

"Losing that kind of person is great loss for the country, for democratic forces and for us (the party)," Tin Oo told reporters, describing the killing as an "assassination".

The International Crisis Group, a think-tank that has previously sounded the alarm over rising religious intolerance in Myanmar, said the killing "underlines the urgency of the Myanmar government and society coming together to condemn all forms of hate speech".