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Aung San Suu Kyi’s long-silenced opposition opened its first ever party conference on Friday, as it sets its sights on the challenges of power in Burma 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 (NLD) 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 Rangoon restaurant for the congress while 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 while 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 Burma’s transition from decades of military dictatorship.
Observers say the party, which spent more than two decades campaigning for democracy in Burma 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 organisation if they become the next government. I don’t think they have anyone capable of running this show,” said one Burmese 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”.
“They have enough old people, but on the other hand they don’t have enough young people,” said Chin National Party head Pu Zozam, one of dozens of representatives of other political parties invited to the event.
“Now they are trying to build (a) young generation group,” he told AFP.
Diplomats have described the NLD 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 US embassy in Yangon dated 2008.
Delegates will pick a 120-member Central Committee, 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 opening of the congress and even some delegates appeared unsure what was on the schedule.
“We did not know what was going to happen in the conference before today,” said Win Oo from Banmauk township in northwest Sagaing. “I hope the people selected can really represent the regions and states.”
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.
Reforms have swept Burma since a quasi-civilian regime, led by former general President Thein Sein, took power in 2011, ending years of isolation and promising a flood of aid and investment.
But multiple hurdles remain, including building basic infrastructure, kick-starting the economy, redrawing the legal system and reviving poorly funded health and education sectors.