Myanmar's ruling party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, has re-appointed reformist President Thein Sein as its leader in their first party conference. The USDP is choosing a new party leadership ahead of 2015 elections, aiming to revive their political support in response to the strengthening of the country’s opposition.
Lower House Speaker Shwe Mann, a fellow reformer who had been tipped to replace Thein Sein, was picked as acting chairman to handle the day-to-day business in a party vote. Mr. Thein Sein relinquished an active role within the party last year when he became Myanmar’s President, and many observers were expecting Mr. Shwe Mann to be named as chairman instead.
According to media reports, citing party members and MPs, the eventual outcome is aimed at maintaining good relations between the government and ruling party. Analysts say Mr. Thein Sein has had some friction with Mr. Shwe Mann, who was more senior under the previous military regime.
"The latest meeting by the USDP to map out their strategy ahead of the 2015 elections in Myanmar is of significance not just to the Myanmar people, but also to the international community watching to see the political direction of the country in the next few years," said Nicholas Fang, Director at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and a Nominated Member of Parliament in Singapore.
"The breadth and speed of the political reforms in the country have been impressive, and President Thein Sein, relying on reform-minded allies, has been credited with leading the country's changes. The international community has also recognised his leadership, and it is heartening to hear he is likely to retain chairmanship of the USDP. The party's declaration at the latest summit this week that it will remain focused on developing a democratic state is welcome news, but it remains to be seen how the government and individual leaders steer the ongoing political change in the months and years ahead."
The USDP is under pressure to win popular support from Myanmar’s people, amid a strong challenge from the main opposition National League for Democracy led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. The NLD did well in by-elections in April 2012, taking 43 of the 44 seats it contested. The elections expected by 2015 are viewed as a major test for Myanmar’s democratic reforms.
The USDP is laying down its future policy during the party conference, which started on Sunday. The party is seeking more seats for the reformists within the party, a move that shows willingness for further reforms.
"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.
Mr 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.
"We will discuss how we can better serve the people," USDP general secretary Htay Oo told AFP ahead of the meeting."We are not only aiming to win 2015... We will continue working even if we do not win," he said.
Mr. Htay Oo added that the party had not been put off by its defeat in the April by-election.
Mr. 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.
Last week, Ms Suu Kyi said she had "the courage to be president" if elected in a future vote, demonstrating her willingness to take the job. That said, this would require an amendment to the constitution barring those with close foreign relatives from holding high office. Ms Suu Kyi, who married a British academic, has two sons living in the West.
In other Myanmar news, a delegation of more than 30 US military and civilian officials arrived in Myanmar last weekend. The visit is viewed as Washington’s most comprehensive push yet to engage with Myanmar’s military and government. According to the Financial Times, the participation of senior US military officers such as Lt Gen Francis Wiercinski, head of the US Army’s Pacific command, in this week’s visit reflects the growing view in Washington that the support of Myanmar’s military is essential to any lasting reforms.
Report: Myanmar's ruling party meets to map out future [China Daily, 15 Oct 2012]
Report: Myanmar president re-elected ruling party leader [AsiaOne (AFP), 16 Oct 2012]
Report: US military officials arrive in Myanmar [Financial Times, 14 Oct 2012]