Burma is a big country, boasting a population of some 60 million. It is also sandwiched between India and China, the two rising powers that will define global politics in the 21st century. Depending on how things turn out, Burma could become either a bridge or a battleground.
So it comes as a bit of shock when you realize that the fate of this rather important country rests largely on the shoulders of two people. One is President Thein Sein, the ex-general who is cautiously trying to push the country toward greater openness. His countrymen are hoping he's serious, while the senior military officers who once ran the place are watching from the wings, alert to any signs that his present course might entail a diminishment of their status or wealth.
The other is Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate whose long years of opposition to the military regime have made her a hero in her homeland and around the world. For the past few weeks she has been out on the campaign trail, running for a seat in parliament. If she wins, she will gain a powerful platform for her message of change, one that could have a profound effect on her country's political future.
These two leaders are very different characters. But they have one very specific thing in common: they are both 66 years old (having been born just two months apart, back in that fateful year of 1945). Partly for that reason, their stories also overlap in another point -- the many lingering questions about their state of health.
Thein Sein has a bad heart. Aung San Suu Kyi recently had to cut short a campaign appearance when she experienced a bout of dizziness. In 2009, when she was still under house arrest, there were serious concerns about her health, with doctors warning about stark dehydration and weight loss.
Burma, it should be mentioned, also has a long and dismal history of political violence. Aung San Suu Kyi's father, a hero of Burma's campaign for national independence, was assassinated. Aung San Suu Kyi herself has been the subject of many threats, and she was the target of at least one attempted assassination that we know of. As for Thein Sein, many of his brother officers have fallen prey to power struggles that have curtailed their freedom, or their lives, over the years.