Young members of Aung San Suu Kyi's opposition party seek louder voice

YANGON (AFP) - Aung San Suu Kyi's Myanmar opposition party faced calls to inject new blood into its ageing top ranks as it opened a landmark conference on Saturday dedicated to its youth wing.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner's National League for Democracy (NLD), founded after a bloody crackdown on a failed popular uprising in 1988, is preparing for key parliamentary elections next year that could sweep it to power.

Maung Maung Oo, one of the organisers of the meeting of about 150 opposition party members aged 16 to 35 - the first of its kind - said the aim was "to promote a new generation of leaders".

"Not only our party, but the whole country faces a generation gap," he told AFP.

Young activists were often at the vanguard of Myanmar's decades-old resistance to military rule, which ended in 2011 with the creation of a nominally civilian government. But they have struggled to penetrate a fledgling post-junta parliamentary system in a country that highly values respect for elders.

"I can guess that some youths might have in their mind that it's their turn to take their places, wondering whether the elders will give up their positions," Ms Suu Kyi said in an opening address to the conference. "You need to consider how these elders have struggled for a long time to ensure the survival of the NLD," she added.

Younger members have urged the NLD to rejuvenate its senior ranks, traditionally dominated by activists in their 60s or older known as "the uncles", but so far the party has refrained from a substantial revamp.

"The voice of the youth in the party is still weak," said NLD member Yazar, 37. "I'm not satisfied with the current structure which lacks a proper central executive committee," he said. "Everything depends on Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. I don't think it's a good sign," he said. Daw is a term of respect in Myanmar.

But there was also a recognition that the party needs the experience of its veteran activists. "We, the youths, still need to learn many things for the future of Myanmar. So we need to do capacity-building first," said Okkar Min, a 29-year-old graduate from the southern city of Myeik. "We will learn good things from the elders and will avoid the bad things as well."

Myanmar President Thein Sein, a former general, has been praised for overseeing dramatic reforms since taking office in 2011, including the release of political prisoners, the end of direct media censorship and the entry of the opposition into parliament.

Suu Kyi, who spent 15 years locked up by the former junta, was elected as a lawmaker in landmark by-elections in 2012. The 69-year-old is expected to lead her party to victory in next year's polls, if they are free and fair.

She has voiced ambitions of becoming president and has campaigned vigorously - but so far unsuccessfully - for lawmakers to amend a constitutional rule that now bars her from the role as her two sons are foreign nationals.

"We will have to work to win a landslide," Suu Kyi said. But "the more important thing is we need to think about the next generation. The youth nowadays will also have to think about the next generation too," she added.

Some experts have questioned whether the opposition is ready for the challenges of running the impoverished nation, which include building basic infrastructure, dealing with ethnic and inter-communal violence, kick-starting the economy and reviving healthcare and education.

The NLD lost one of its best loved champions of freedom in April with the death of Win Tin, 84, who was Myanmar's longest-serving political detainee under the former junta.

"On the road ahead, whether the youths and the elders like it nor not, youths will have to take positions one day," Suu Kyi told the conference. "The elders will gradually disappear naturally. The youths will become the elders. Don't forget this."

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