Myanmar’s army-backed ruling party was urged yesterday to embrace democracy at a key meeting to revamp its leadership and map its future after a by-election drubbing by Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition.
Members of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), set up by former junta generals, were urged to work in the interests of the people, building on reforms that have swept the country under the current quasi-civilian regime.
“As we move towards the implementation of a democratic system for the benefit of the people, the USDP and all its members are required to participate enthusiastically wherever they are,” party vice president Shwe Mann told around 1,500 delegates in the capital Naypyidaw.
The lower house speaker, who is seen as a rival of Burmese President Thein Sein, is expected to be elevated to acting party chief during the conference as members look towards a 2015 election widely seen as the greatest test of the country’s changes.
The reformist Thein Sein stepped down as party head to take office as president when nearly half a century of outright military rule ended last year. The post has since remained vacant.
“In a democratic system, we have to keep in mind that the majority needs to respect the wishes of the minority, while all must follow the majority’s decision,” Shwe Mann said, adding that he was speaking on behalf of Thein Sein, who also attended the party’s first-ever conference.
The USDP swept a poll two years ago that was marred by allegations of fraud and the absence of Aung San Suu Kyi, who was released from house arrest just days later.
However, the Nobel laureate has since been encouraged to take her National League for Democracy (NLD) party into mainstream politics under reforms that have also included the release of hundreds of jailed dissidents.
The NLD won a decisive victory in April by-elections, taking 43 of the 44 parliamentary seats it contested. Last week Aung San Suu Kyi, now a politician, said she had “the courage to be president” if elected, signaling a willingness to take the top job.
That would require the amending of a constitution that bars those with close foreign relatives from holding high office. Aung San Suu Kyi, who married a British academic, has two sons living in the West.
Analysts say Thein Sein is locked in a power struggle with Shwe Mann, widely considered to harbor ambitions of taking the presidency after 2015.
The relationship between the pair, both former generals, is believed to have soured after Thein Sein was appointed president while Shwe Mann, who was more senior under the previous regime, took the lesser role of speaker.
Shwe Mann told delegates that the conference would be to transform the USDP into a people’s party, urging all members to take part in the changes.
The party’s central executive committee is also expected to be expanded during the meeting.
One senior party member, who asked not to be named, told reporters that the changes would give the party “new blood.”
“Reforming the party will be the significant thing of this first conference,” he said, adding that Shwe Mann was expected to be elected as acting chairman during the meeting.
However, observers say electoral success will be a formidable challenge for the USDP if it is pitted against the NLD in a free and fair vote.
“They cannot rig the election like before, so the USDP might need to find another way for themselves,” said Hkun Htun Oo of the Shan National League for Democracy party.