Yangon: 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 today 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.
The years of repression and Suu Kyi`s iconic stature -- she is greeted by villagers with cries of "Long live mother!" have also centralised decision-making, which critics say is bad for the broader project of democracy and could weaken the NLD`s appeal.