News / Asia

Burma's NLD Faces Challenges at Historic Congress

Congress delegates prepare to pose for photographs as they arrive to attend the National League for Democracy party's (NLD) congress in Rangoon, March 8, 2013.
Congress delegates prepare to pose for photographs as they arrive to attend the National League for Democracy party's (NLD) congress in Rangoon, March 8, 2013.
VOA News
Burma's once-outlawed National League for Democracy is holding its first party congress since the opposition group was founded 25 years ago.

Delegates in Rangoon will draw up a policy framework and elect a central committee during the three-day meeting that began Friday. Democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi is also expected to be reappointed as head of the party.

The Nobel laureate helped the NLD to a strong showing in historic April by-elections, which saw the party win 43 of the 45 contested seats. But the NLD is setting its sights on 2015, when it hopes to take power during national elections.

But the party faces several challenges as it attempts to fashion itself into a viable political alternative to the military, which still dominates parliament and other government institutions.

One of the most pressing issues is electing younger leaders to replace the party's elderly founding members, many of whom are in their 80s or 90s and in poor health.

NLD spokesperson Nyan Win told VOA last month the party intends to address the youth problem during this week's congress, vowing to elect more young people, as well as women, to leadership positions.

Some say the NLD has also become too reliant on the charismatic Aung San Suu Kyi, whose immense popularity played a major part in helping it sweep the April polls.

"It's no secret that the party needs to be re-vamped. There has to be a new generation of leaders, there has to be a better structure, more meetings, it has to be more institutionalized," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of Bangkok's Institute of Security and International Studies. "It has to be less personalized around Aung San Suu Kyi."

Pongsudhirak says a key part of the NLD's reorganization should be formulating core policy proposals that help move the country forward - something he says he has not seen enough of from the current leadership.

Another issue to be resolved is what role Aung San Suu Kyi will play following the 2015 elections. She has expressed interest in running for president, though the constitution currently bars her from doing so because she was previously married to a Briton.

A presidential run would be a stunning turn of events for the 67-year-old, who spent much of the past two decades under some form of detention because of her activism before being released in 2010.

But Pongsudhirak says she may actually be more effective in guiding Burma's transition if she does not run for president.

"If she opts out of the presidential election she could do so much more. But, if she stays in the election equation, she'll have to make more and more compromises," he added.

Many human rights activists have criticized Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD for not speaking out loudly enough about ongoing human rights abuses against ethnic minorities in several border regions.

Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director for Human Rights Watch, tells VOA that the NLD risks sacrificing its "moral authority" for the benefits of what he calls "short-term politics."

"We expected that they would be much more vocal on human rights issues," he said. "That they would be pressing harder on the issues of ending human rights violations in, for instance, the ethnic states at the hands of the Burma army. But so far they've largely been silent on many of these issues."

Robertson acknowledges that the NLD is now in the difficult position of having to retain popularity in order to win votes. But he says they should not sacrifice core principles in order to do so.

Others are more optimistic. Jim Della-Giacoma of the International Crisis Group tells VOA that the upcoming elections offer a real chance for change that was once unthinkable in Burma, which is also known as Myanmar.

"The country is changing in many ways that were not predicted," he said. "It's hard to look into the future in 2015, but we all hope it will continue to move in a more democratic direction, and that this will, sooner, rather than later, produce dividends for ordinary citizens of Myanmar."

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