Myanmar opposition holds first party congress

Saturday - 3/9/2013, 12:03am EST

Associated Press

YANGON, Myanmar (AP) -- It is a party dominated by a single strong leader. Top positions are made by appointment. Decision-making is quiet and circumscribed. That party is not Myanmar's ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, which grew out of decades of military dictatorship. It is the National League for Democracy, led by democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and currently the country's best hope for building a viable political opposition after half a century of authoritarian rule.

The NLD is holding an all-party congress to elect its own leadership for the first time in the group's 25-year history-- an important step toward making it more reflective of its democratic ideals. It is a sign of how far Myanmar has come with political reform that the gathering is allowed at all. But it's also a test for the NLD, which is working to transform itself from a party of one into a structurally viable political opposition in time for national elections in 2015.

"Our party must be renewed and reformed," said Tin Oo, who is overseeing the organization of the congress. "We are going to advocate for democracy, so our party must be based on democratization."

The renewal began Friday as nearly 900 NLD representatives from across the country gathered at a restaurant in Myanmar's main city, Yangon, where the three-day congress is being held. Above them, red NLD party flags, decorated with golden fighting peacocks, fluttered in the early light. The mood was ebullient.

"I am very excited to be here," said Nan, a 46-year-old woman from a ruby-rich area of the northern Mandalay region who goes by one name. "We hope to see the NLD transform into a more democratic structure, in line with the changes taking place in the country."

Forged under authoritarian rule, the NLD has been, in some ways, a mirror image of the country's ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party. Unable to convene party meetings, with its leaders often jailed and the party itself officially banned for much of its existence, the NLD could not hold elections. Leaders had to be appointed. Secret and summary decisions had to be made. And in the unforgiving narrative of repression that has long governed Myanmar, there were heroes who were not to be questioned any more than the villains they fought.

Tin Oo is aware that he himself stands as evidence of the urgent need to groom a new generation of leaders for the party, whose top ranks include men who are quite literally toothless. An energetic 86-year-old, Tin Oo is one of three surviving founders of the party.

But the effort to inject fresh blood and expertise and bring more ethnic minorities and women into leadership positions has also brought conflict. Some longstanding members of the NLD -- many of whom made enormous sacrifices while less courageous souls stayed out of politics -- now feel supplanted.

"We try our best to balance the old and the new," Tin Oo said. "But there are quite a lot of quarrels."

The NLD was founded in the wake of Myanmar's thwarted 1988 popular uprising, when students, monks and ordinary citizens swarmed the streets demanding political change. The country's military junta cracked down, killing several thousand and successfully stalling the momentum of revolution. It was then that Aung San Suu Kyi's political career -- and the National League for Democracy -- were born.

Within two months of its founding, the NLD began planning a nationwide congress to elect leaders, but they were only able to hold a few township elections.

"Then all of us were sent to jail and kept there for a long time," said Win Tin, 83, a journalist and NLD founder.

One testament to the importance the party still places on this democratic exercise is the speed with which it has executed it. The very night Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in November 2010, NLD leaders met with her to discuss how to reinvigorate the party, Win Tin said. The NLD re-registered as a political party in January 2012, swept parliamentary by-elections in April, and by June had begun convening more than 17,000 elections to select local representatives and delegates for the all-party congress.

The structure of democracy is one thing, its culture another. Most members of the NLD, like the people of Myanmar itself, understand the contours of democracy only through its absence. This lack of a developed political culture, some party members say, contributed to infighting and irregularities that marred some of the local elections.