RANGOON, Burma — Aung San Suu Kyi rarely gives speeches these days.
But over the weekend, the leader of Burma’s government stood behind a lectern at the Royal Rose restaurant to praise the lives of two very different men.
The better known, U Ko Ni, was a prominent legal adviser, constitutional law expert and, rare for political life in Burma, a Muslim.
The lesser known was U Nay Win, a taxi driver, working man and, like the majority of the population here, a Buddhist.
Fate drew them together at the Rangoon airport in January when an assassin crept up behind the 63-year-old legal adviser as he waited for a ride and shot him in the back of the head. He had been holding his grandchild, who tumbled to the ground but was somehow unhurt.
Bystanders yelled “Shooter! Shooter!” Nay Win, 42, and others chased the attacker as he tried to cut across a main road and parking lot. Nay Win hurled a brick at the man, who shot back, fatally wounding him.
For weeks, Suu Kyi had not spoken about the deaths in public. But in her remarks she described both men as heroes and martyrs. Ko Ni’s death was a “deep loss” for the party, and Nay Win’s bravery set a “good example” for the country. Her administration has called the killings an act of terrorism.
Three suspects — including the alleged shooter, identified later as U Kyi Lin — are in custody. A fourth is on the run.
Lt. Gen. Kyaw Swe, the home affairs minister, has said that the plotters were motivated by feelings of “extreme nationalism,” but also floated a contradictory idea that the assassins could have come from Ko Ni’s own community.
Ko Ni helped create the powerful role of state counselor for Suu Kyi after she came to power nearly a year ago. At the time she was barred from the presidency because of the 2008 military-drafted constitution. Ko Ni’s support for Burma’s Muslim community and interfaith efforts made him even less popular with nationalists than she is.
Burma’s government has come under fire in recent months for a brutal crackdown on Rohingya Muslim insurgents in northern Rakhine State that rights groups say could amount to crimes against humanity.
Ko Ni’s death has further strained tensions while depriving the Muslim community of one of its last voices in government. Suu Kyi’s party fielded no Muslim parliamentary candidates in the 2015 elections, which ended decades of military rule.
Nay Win could not have known whose killer he was chasing. But his simple act of heroism moved many. The fact that the victims were of different faiths was a rare reminder of shared values.
“We have no religion in this sort of thing,” said one of his fellow drivers at the airport, who declined to give his name because of his fear of the police.
His co-workers pooled about $700 for a simple tomb. At the funeral, they displayed a banner with the words “Hero driver” next to Nay Win’s photo.
Nay Win worked at the airport for two to three years, co-workers said, pulling in an average of $20 a day before gas and expenses. He seemed to have found a home at Flying Swallow Transportation, a private company where he worked for the past eight or nine months, Chairman U Myo Chit said in an interview.
He had three children from his second marriage and a teenage daughter from his first, according to local media.
Myo Chit described him as a reliable employee who took part in company activities. When Rangoon launched a new citywide public bus service in January that pared some of the old routes, he helped give stranded passengers a lift.
“He was a good guy,” Myo Chit said.
On the day of the shooting, Nay Win was heading to his taxi near Terminal 1 when he saw the shooter fleeing the scene. After being shot, Nay Win clutched his stomach wound and urged others to keep chasing the attacker, one driver said. When he tried to get up, he slumped back down.
Taxi driver Aye Myint, 54, saw a police officer shouting at the attacker to drop his gun. He tried to get in a taxi but was yanked out. Drivers started beating and kicking him before he was arrested.
Co-workers piled a bloody Nay Win into Aye Myint’s cab. They sped to the hospital. Nay Win was still alive, and Aye Myint told him he would be all right. They helped bring him to the emergency ward, where he showed signs of a heartbeat.
“But after 10 or 15 minutes,” Aye Myint said, “it was finished.”
Cape Diamond contributed to this report.