Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi vowed Saturday to inject new blood into her party and urged members to rise above petty differences as they elect new leadership for the first time in the 25-year history of the National League for Democracy.
"Choose leaders without any personal grudge," she told the assembled crowd of more than 1,000 delegates and guests. "Don't think of yourself. Don't think of your friends. Have firm policies and conviction and the courage to sacrifice, if you want to claim yourself a politician."
The three-day NLD congress, which opened Friday, is an important step toward making the party 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.
That transformation has not come without conflict, as the party struggles to infuse its ranks with new faces, expertise and diversity without sidelining long-standing members.
Suu Kyi said it was important to learn from past weaknesses and vowed to decentralize decision-making and inject the leadership with "new blood."
"The NLD has been accused of using centralized systems. It is partly true because we were unable to operate freely," she said. "But the situation has changed."
On Friday, the congress elected seven members, including Suu Kyi, to its top leadership body, the central executive committee. All come from the ranks of party faithful and most are in their late 60s. The NLD plans to elect around a dozen more members to the body. They have also elected 100 of a planned 150 members to the party's second-line central committee.
Suu Kyi concluded her 20-minute speech Saturday with a broad call for unity, welcoming ethnic minority leaders, new party members and a vice-chairman of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, Htay Oo, as honored guests.
"This is very positive for the future and it will be very beneficial for the people if we walk hand-in-hand," she said.