Suu Kyi's party needs new blood, say analysts

Dec 21, 2009 (AFP), Burma’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi faces an urgent challenge to shake up her party’s ranks, analysts say, after a rare meeting with her colleagues exposed a weak and ageing leadership team.

Faced with national polls next year and their leader still in detention, members of the National League for Democracy (NLD) also need to resolve ideological differences within the party, they said.

The military junta, which has ruled Burma with an iron fist since 1962, allowed the democracy icon to leave her prison home Wednesday to pay respects to three ailing senior members of her political party, and she used the opportunity to ask their permission to ring in changes.

Party chairman Aung Shwe, 92, secretary Lwin, 85, and central executive committee (CEC) member Lun Tin, 89, approved Suu Kyi’s unprecedented request to "reorganise" the CEC, Lwin said.

At 64, Suu Kyi is the youngest of the 11-member committee, while nine are in their 80s and 90s and most of them are said to be in bad health.

The old guard have disagreed with younger members over party policies, including whether or not to contest polls scheduled for 2010, with many of the new generation favouring a more pragmatic approach.

"It’s a make or break point for the NLD," said a Bangkok-based European diplomat on condition of anonymity. "There are obviously many hardliners in the committee who are perhaps looking to the past more than the future."

The party is yet to decide if it will take part in the elections, which critics fear are a sham designed to legitimise the junta’s grip on power.

But the diplomat said the latest development showed Suu Kyi "has given her signal that she wants them to reorganise and she wants the party to get ready".

"At the moment there’s an amazing lack of vision and knowledge when it comes to the economic situation, the ethnic issue — all the key Burma challenges," the diplomat said, referring to tensions with minority groups.

Suu Kyi has spent most of the last 20 years in detention and calls for changes have been coming ever since her first period of freedom 14 years ago, said Derek Tonkin, chairman of the UK-based Network Myanmar.

"Since then a lot of people say she ought to have applied herself to the reorganisation of the party more than political campaigns," he said.

But Win Min, an activist and scholar in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai, said new membership had been stifled by fear of the authorities.

"It may be difficult to recruit new blood at the grassroots level because of the restrictions and intimidation by the military," he said.

In August, following a prison trial, Suu Kyi was ordered to spend another 18 months in detention.

The sentence sparked an international furore as it effectively keeps her off the stage for the 2010 elections, which will be Burma’s first since 1990, when the junta refused to recognise the NLD’s landslide win.

Following moves in recent months by the United States and European Union towards a policy of engagement with Burma, Suu Kyi has pursued greater dialogue with the government.

She has written twice to junta chief Than Shwe, once offering her help in getting sanctions lifted and later seeking a meeting with him, while she has been allowed three meetings with the government liaison officer since October.

But her plea for talks with the other CEC members, which would be necessary to implement changes to the party, has not yet been granted.

One member, 68-year-old Khin Maung Swe, told AFP a place would be kept for loyal senior colleagues.

"It is certain that we will reorganise the committee, but we cannot say the time-frame…. We cannot neglect our senior CEC members if they want to serve," he said.

Although the NLD’s fate largely remains in the hands of the junta, the Bangkok-based diplomat said the party members are partly to blame for their "incapacity to rejuvenate themselves".

"If they don’t get this right they will be remembered for being full of good intentions but all their sacrifices will be in vain, and I think Aung San Suu Kyi had grasped that," he said.

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