YANGON - A top Muslim lawyer who was gunned down outside Yangon airport was deliberately targeted, Myanmar's ruling party has said, describing the assassination as a "terrorist act" against their policies.
Ko Ni, a legal advisor to the National League for Democracy who spoke out against rising sectarianism, was shot in the head on Sunday afternoon by an assailant as he waited outside the airport while holding his grandson.
A taxi driver who tried to stop the attacker was also gunned down in an act that has shocked a country unused to political killings.
The unnamed attacker was arrested at the scene and is being interrogated by police but authorities have so far remained silent on his motivations.
In a statement released late Sunday, the NLD described Ko Ni as a key aide to de facto civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, saying he was "irreplacable".
"We strongly denounce the assassination of Ko Ni like this as it is a terrorist act against the NLD's policies," the statement said.
The 63-year-old was a veteran member of the party which doggedly faced down decades of military rule to sweep the 2015 elections that brought Suu Kyi to power.
As a prominent Muslim party member he was also a rare voice advocating religious tolerance and pluralism -- and a critic of the powerful military's ongoing political influence.
Ko Ni's 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 was a prominent Muslim voice in the majority Buddhist country.
"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 outside the hospital where her father's body had been taken.
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 per cent 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 analysts said was a sop to Buddhist hardliners.
She has also faced international censure for her failure to criticise an ongoing army crackdown against the Muslim Rohingya minority in western 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.
Ko Ni had just returned from a government delegation visit to Indonesia where regional leaders were discussing sectarian tensions in Rakhine state.
He had also met UN rights envoy Yanghee Lee earlier this month.
Amnesty International described Ko Ni as "a tireless human rights campaigner" adding his death marked "the loss of an important voice in the fight for human rights in Myanmar".
Charles Santiago, chair of the regional Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights, added: "His vocal support for minority rights was an inspiration to all who struggle against hatred, bigotry, and persecution,"
Relatives and supporters are expected to gather later Monday in Yangon for his funeral.