Myanmar's ruling party meets to map out future

Updated: 2012-10-15 02:15

By Agencies (China Daily)

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Members urged to build on reforms, work in interests of the people

Myanmar's ruling party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, opened its first party conference in the capital Nay Pyi Taw on Sunday as it vows for a major leadership change and expansion to win public support.

Observers said the ruling party is feeling pressures from both outside and inside to narrow the gap with the main opposition party led by Aung San Suu Kyi, as the country is to hold a next general election in 2015 under the constitution.

President Thein Sein, who is the party's former chairman, was present briefly at the opening session of the conference to greet the party members, and party sources said the party will lay down its future policy and elect a new party leadership during the four-day conference.

Members of the USDP were urged to work in the interests of the people, building on reforms that have swept the country under the current administration.

"As we move toward 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," the party's vice-president Shwe Mann told around 1,500 delegates in the capital.

Shwe Mann told delegates that the conference would transform the USDP into a people's party, urging all members to take part in the changes.

The party's central executive committee is expected to be expanded during the meeting.

Xu Liping, a researcher of Southeast Asian studies at the Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said that the ruling party is facing mounting pressure for future reforms.

"Washington and European countries are of a major driving force for a deepening democratic reform, and the domestic public opinion shows overwhelming support for the major opposition National League for Democracy Party, which poses a serious challenge (to the ruling party)," Xu said.

USDP, once claimed as having a membership of more than 16 million, was transformed from the former military-backed social organization established in 1993 with some then government leaders being members of the central panel.

In the November 2010 general election contested by 37 political parties with the absence of the opposition National League for Democracy, the USDP won the majority of 883 parliamentary seats (76.5 percent) out of a total of 1,154 at three levels.

Yet in the April by-elections, the USDP gained one seat with the House of Nationalities out of 45 open parliamentary seats, while the NLD swept 43.

During the four-day party conference, the ruling USDP is seeking more seats for the reformists within the party, a move that shows willingness for further reforms, and the reformist posture is also intended to follow public demand for enhancing living standards, Xu said.

One senior party member, who asked not to be named, told AFP 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.

But 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.

The ruling party's vow for changes has also been interpreted as a response to doubts from parties outside the country, and it shows that the party "has the capability for substantial reform", Xu Liping said.

During his weeklong visit from Sept 24 to 30 to the United States, Thein Sein repeated his dedication to democratic transition, describing the US recognition as an encouragement to the country to continue on its chosen path.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Thein Sein that the US is watching the steady reform process implemented by the president and his cabinet and is responding to every step of Myanmar to acknowledge the reform efforts and to encourage further reform.

In recognition of the reform process, the US took a step to normalize commercial relations between the two countries by easing US restrictions on the import of goods from Myanmar.

Suu Kyi also left Myanmar earlier in mid-September to visit the US.

"Thein Sein and Suu Kyi's visits to the US have showed the trend that reform is irreversible," said Xu, the Chinese researcher.

Last week, Suu Kyi said she had "the courage to be president" if elected, signaling her willingness to take the top job.

Thein Sein has said in an interview with BBC later that he would accept Suu Kyi as president if she was elected.

Win Than, a USDP member of parliament, told BBC his party could not afford to stand still.

"We must not resist change now. If we don't change, we will lag behind. We have gone through several parliamentary sessions, and we now know what people want and what they don't," he said.