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Suu Kyi’s party opens first congress to pave way for elections in 2015

AFP-JIJI

Aung San Suu Kyi’s long-silenced opposition opened its first party conference Friday as it sets its sights on the challenges of power in Myanmar after years in the political wilderness.

An estimated 850 representatives will attend three days of talks that aim to redefine the National League for Democracy leadership — an event hailed by the party as unprecedented in the country’s troubled history.

Red flags bearing the NLD peacock emblem were erected on a stage in a Yangon restaurant for the landmark congress, and a large picture of Suu Kyi and her late father — independence hero Aung San — was erected outside.

NLD flags festooned the road to the entrance, and arriving delegates wore party armbands — another sight unthinkable until recently in a country that endured decades of iron-fisted junta rule until early 2011.

Propelled by her huge popularity, the NLD is widely expected to take power after 2015 elections — if the vote is free and fair. Many see the polls as the apex of Myanmar’s transition from decades of military dictatorship.

Observers say the party, which spent more than two decades campaigning for democracy in Myanmar before finally entering Parliament after historic 2012 by-elections, must now prepare itself for the myriad challenges of ruling the fast-changing nation.

“The NLD will need to build capacity within the organization if they become the next government. I don’t think they have anyone capable of running this show,” said one political analyst who asked to remain anonymous. “You have to adapt to the new opening. Can the NLD meet that challenge? This is a big question.”

The party has been urged to do more to include younger members and technocrats as it prepares for the 2015 vote.

Many senior party members are in their 80s and 90s, but it was unclear whether new blood would be injected into the upper ranks of the NLD to replace the elderly leaders, known as the “NLD uncles.”

Diplomats have described the party as “hierarchical.”

“New ideas are not solicited or encouraged from younger members, and the uncles regularly expel members they believe are ‘too active,’ ” according to a leaked diplomatic cable from the U.S. Embassy in Yangon that was dated 2008.

Delegates will pick a 120-member Central Committee — possibly Friday — who will in turn elect a core executive of 15 people.

Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner who spent 15 years locked up by the former junta, is expected to be comfortably reappointed as head of the party.

But beyond that, the precise agenda was unclear. Journalists were barred from entering the open of the congress, and even some delegates appeared unsure what was on the schedule.

Suu Kyi, who entered Parliament last year, has not ruled out presidential ambitions, although a constitutional rule currently bars her from the top job because she was married to a Briton and has two sons who are both foreign nationals.

The 67-year-old Nobel laureate is expected to attend the party conference on Saturday.