Aung San Suu Kyi was selected Sunday to continue as head of Myanmar's main opposition party, keeping her leadership post even as the party undergoes a makeover to adjust to the country's new democratic framework.
The Nobel laureate was named chairwoman of the National League for Democracy's new executive board on the final day of a landmark three-day party congress attended by 894 delegates from around the country.
The congress also expanded the group's Central Executive Committee from seven members to 15, in a revitalization and reform effort ahead of Myanmar's 2015 general election. The party is seeking to infuse its ranks with new faces, expertise and diversity without sidelining long-standing members.
"We have to see how effectively and efficiently the new leaders can perform their duties," said Suu Kyi, who has led the NLD since its inception in 1988. "We hope they will learn through experience."
Suu Kyi's selection had been assured, since she is the party's main drawing card. But her dominant influence has also drawn criticism that the party may be too reliant on her charisma.
Asked about allegations by critics that her party leans toward an authoritarian structure, she said Sunday that "all our leaders have been elected democratically. So if they feel that they do not like authoritarian leadership, they should not vote for those whom they think are authoritarian."
Suu Kyi conceded that there has been some friction in the party's current transformation process, with complaints surfacing about lack of transparency and fairness in the election of local leaders in the run-up to the congress. Four party members who had been elected to attend the congress were suspended just two days before it opened Friday over allegations of illegal lobbying.
Suu Kyi is the sole holdover from the party's original executive board when it was founded, but the other new members are also mostly long-serving party loyalists, disappointing some who were looking for new blood. A broader Central Committee of 120 members was elected by the delegates and endorsed the executive board, which was given five reserve members.
The party, which came into being as the army was crushing a mass pro-democracy uprising in 1988, won a 1990 general election that was nullified by the then-ruling military. The NLD boycotted a 2010 general election, but after a military-backed elected government took office in 2011 and instituted democratic reforms, it contested by-elections in 2012, winning 43 of 44 seats and putting Suu Kyi into parliament.
Emerging from repression that limited its actions — not least because Suu Kyi and other senior NLD members spent years under detention — Suu Kyi vowed in her opening speech Saturday to inject the party with "new blood" and decentralize decision-making.
She said the NLD would go through an experimental stage with the new leadership and should anticipate some obstacles but "not be discouraged."
Although the 2012 by-election results showed that the NLD still has broad and deep appeal, the party faces challenges.
The army-backed ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party of President Thein Sein, besides being well-financed and enjoying the benefits of controlling the bureaucracy, has staked out a position as reformist.
It can boast of freeing the press, releasing most of the country's political prisoners and convincing foreign nations to lift most economic sanctions they had imposed against the former military regime for its poor human rights record. It hopes that opening up Myanmar, also known as Burma, to foreign investment will kick-start a moribund economy and win it popular appeal.
On the other side of the political spectrum, the NLD's agreement to play by parliamentary rules — in effect endorsing Thein Sein's reform efforts — leaves an opening for more hard-core anti-military activists to win over a share of disaffected voters who prefer a quicker pace of change than now allowed under the army-dictated constitution.
Speaking to the party meeting after her selection as chairwoman on Sunday, Suu Kyi said that in choosing executive board members there was an effort to include women, members of ethnic minorities and younger people, in addition to members with a record of continuous party service. Four women and several ethnic minority members are on the new board.
Suu Kyi acknowledged to reporters that younger members were underrepresented on the Central Executive Committee compared to the bigger Central Committee.
"We need experienced members who know the policies, tradition and history of the party and who had been in the party for the last 25 years," said Suu Kyi, who won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize while under house arrest. "After some time, the younger generation will take over their place. There should be connectivity between the past, present and future."
Suu Kyi's colleagues expressed satisfaction with the meeting's results.
"The new CEC and Central Committee members will enjoy the trust of the majority because we are elected democratically. I believe we will be able to carry out our work more effectively," May Win Myint, a veteran NLD member jailed many times for her activities, said after being elected to the executive board.
Kyi Phyu Shin, a well-known film director who became an NLD member six months ago and was elected to the Central Committee, said she was "very confident that the NLD will become a tight organization, very active and competitive. The congress helps institute better democratic practices in the NLD."