It’s little wonder that the Nov. 8 election is largely shaping up to be a contest between the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and Burma’s most popular opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), despite a total of 92 parties having thrown their hats into the ring. The personalities and backgrounds of these two parties’ leaders, President Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi, respectively, will influence the decisions of many of the country’s 33 million eligible voters when it comes time to cast ballots next month.
Last Friday, the USDP officially backed the incumbent Thein Sein as the party’s choice for the top post if the party wins a majority in the November poll, with the party’s general secretary telling the BBC Burmese service as much in an interview.
As for Suu Kyi, she is barred from the presidency by the Constitution. However, Burmese voters who want to see her assume the top post apparently need not despair: She recently told her supporters at a rally on the outskirts of Rangoon that whoever the party selects as president if it wins the necessary majority on Nov. 8, she will ultimately be the leader of the NLD government formed thereafter.
When voters enter the polling booths in just over two weeks, these two leaders’ qualifications, personal and political backgrounds, achievements and other matters of pedigree will inform the choices of many.
With this in mind, here’s a brief look at the histories of two towering political figures, born just two months apart, who have led dramatically different lives to get where they are today. In a race where the ruling party has framed itself as the initiator of democratic reforms and the opposition makes a case for “change,” background and historical context is essential to voters’ ability to help shape the future.
April 20, 1945: Thein Sein is born to common-folk parents (his father wove mats and hefted river cargo while his mother was a vendor) in Kyonku village, Irrawaddy Division. On June 19, two months later, Aung San Suu Kyi is born in Burma to Gen. Aung San, the architect of Burma’s independence, and Khin Kyi, who later became an ambassador to India and Nepal, becoming the first Burmese woman to do so. Both are the youngest siblings in three-child households.
July 19, 1947: Suu Kyi’s father Aung San is assassinated by a political rival when she is only 2 years old and just six months before Burma regained its independence from Britain in a deal that he was instrumental in achieving.
1960: Suu Kyi, who accompanied her ambassador mother to New Delhi, India, attends Lady Shri Ram College in Delhi, graduating in 1964.
1962: Thein Sein passes the 8th grade at a middle school in Pathein, the capital of Irrawaddy Division, after having to drop out of primary school for one year because his parents were unable to afford tuition.
1968: Thein Sein graduates from the 9th intake of the Defense Services Academy, Burma’s West Point, and starts serving as a lieutenant in the army. In 1969, one year later, Suu Kyi completes her BA in philosophy, politics and economics at St. Hugh’s College, Oxford University.
1969 to 1971: Suu Kyi works as the assistant secretary to the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions for the United Nations in New York City. In 1972, Suu Kyi works as a research officer for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the Kingdom of Bhutan. The same year, she marries Dr. Michael Aris, a British scholar of Buddhism. Meanwhile, Lt. Thein Sein becomes captain.
1985-86: Suu Kyi attends the Center of Southeast Asian Studies at Kyoto University as a visiting scholar. After returning to London in 1987, she studied for an advanced degree in Burmese literature at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. In 1986, Thein Sein is promoted to colonel but throughout his military career, he is considered a “bureaucrat,” not a combat soldier.
March 1988: Suu Kyi returns to Rangoon to look after her ailing mother as the country is in the early days of what would grow to become a nationwide anti-government movement. On Aug. 26, she enters the turbulent political fray, in a first public speech addressing an estimated half a million people at the famous Shwedagon rally. Six days after the military staged a bloody coup on Sept. 18, 1988, Suu Kyi forms the National League for Democracy with senior politicians and intellectuals. She serves as the secretary general of the NLD.
July 20, 1989: Suu Kyi is placed under house arrest for her attempt to join a planned march with activists the day prior, Martyrs’ Day, when the nation honors the assassination of her father and several ministers of his cabinet.
During these years, Thein Sein is believed to have served as commander of an infantry battalion in Kale Township, Sagaing Division.
May 27, 1990: The military regime holds a general election and Suu Kyi’s party, the NLD, wins in a landslide, even as she remains under house arrest at her lakeside home. The military regime, known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) led by Gen. Saw Maung and Lt–Gen Than Shwe as chairman and vice chairman respectively, doesn’t honor the results of the election. Thein Sein is not a member of the junta leadership that nullified the election outcome.
Oct. 14, 1991: The Norwegian Nobel Committee awards the Nobel Peace Prize to Suu Kyi for her “nonviolent struggle for democracy and human rights.” Suu Kyi is under house arrest without charges in her lakeside houses in Rangoon at the time. The same year, Thein Sein is posted at the War Office in Rangoon as General Staff Officer and promoted to brigadier-general.
July 10, 1995: Suu Kyi is released from house arrest after six years. She calls for a dialogue with the military regime in the spirit of national reconciliation. Several months after her release, the NLD walks out of the National Convention—convened by the junta beginning in 1993 to draft a constitution—saying its procedures are not democratic.
1996: Thein Sein is appointed head of the Triangle Regional Military Command—considered one of the most vital in the military—in Shan State, a post he holds until 2001.
Nov. 9, 1996: Suu Kyi’s motorcade with her deputies Tin Oo and Kyi Maung is attacked in Rangoon. A couple hundred men attack their cars with various weapons including metal chains, metal batons and stones. Car windows are smashed and reports suggest the attack was organized by the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), an organization formed by the then junta head Snr-Gen Than Shwe. Suu Kyi’s party lodges an official complaint with police and the government opens an investigation but no action is taken against the perpetrators.
Nov. 15, 1997: The SLORC renames itself the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), after a leadership reshuffle. Thein Sein becomes a member of the SPDC, which Than Shwe continues to chair.
Sept. 21, 2000: Suu Kyi and her deputy Tin Oo are arrested while attempting to travel from Rangoon to Mandalay by train. Nine months later on Sept. 23, Tin Oo is released but Suu Kyi remains detained in her house.
2001: Than Shwe appoints Thein Sein as adjutant-general of the War Office, including his “inside man” among 12 of the junta’s top military leaders. It is believed that from this time on, Than Shwe groomed Thein Sein to be a leading member of the junta’s political camp rather than the military.
May 2002: Suu Kyi is released and the military regime announces that the day marks “a new page for the people of Myanmar and international community,” though its statement does not specifically mention Suu Kyi or her release.
May 30, 2003: Suu Kyi’s motorcade is ambushed by a mob in Depayin, Sagaing Division. It is later known as the Depayin Massacre, with several dozen of the opposition leader’s supporters killed. The USDA is again fingered as a culprit, along with the government-backed militia group known as Swan Arr Shin. Suu Kyi’s car narrowly manages to escape the attack. She is immediately put in jail and later again placed under house arrest.
August 2003: Thein Sein is appointed as Secretary-2 of the SPDC and promoted to lieutenant-general. Prime Minister Khin Nyunt, then the Military Intelligence chief, announces that the National Convention will reconvene to draft a charter for the nation as part of the junta’s “roadmap” to democracy. Thein Sein is appointed to oversee the National Convention.
October 2004: Khin Nyunt is sacked and replaced with the junta’s Secretary-1 Soe Win. The shakeup sees Thein Sein become Secretary-1. Suu Kyi remains confined to her home.
2005: The National Convention resumes with more than 1,000 handpicked delegates, but Suu Kyi’s party as well as several of the country’s main ethnic minority groups don’t participate.
April 2007: With Prime Minister Soe Win falling ill, Thein Sein becomes interim prime minister. In August of that year, peaceful protests are sparked by the junta’s decision to hike fuel prices. Buddhist monks take to the streets to lead the anti-government demonstrations.
Sept. 21, 2007: Though under house arrest, Suu Kyi manages to make a brief appearance to pay respect to monks protesting against the regime as they march past her house. The protest, which comes to be called the Saffron Revolution, grows in size and in late September, the regime cracks down violently. Thousands of protesters, many of them monks, are arrested. More than a dozen monasteries are raided and monks are beaten, tortured and jailed.
Oct. 24, 2007: Thein Sein becomes prime minister just weeks after his predecessor Soe Win dies.
May 2, 2008: Cyclone Nargis devastates Burma, leaving about 140,000 people dead. The disaster does not prevent the government from holding a referendum just over a week later on May 10, when the public is asked to vote on the Constitution produced by the National Convention.
Prime Minister Thein Sein leads the National Disaster Preparedness Central Committee as chairman and is criticized for the government’s systematic blocking of international relief efforts in the early days of the cyclone recovery.
May 27, 2008: Suu Kyi’s house arrest is extended for another year. She has been serving under house since 2003, it being her third stint.
2009: Suu Kyi’s house arrest is extended for 18 months after the American citizen John Yettaw manages to make his way onto her property by swimming across Rangoon’s Inya Lake.
April 24, 2010: Thein Sein retires from the military as general to serve as chairman of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), a political reincarnation of the USDA. Few doubt he has been handpicked by Than Shwe to lead the party as well as be its future presidential candidate. The regime holds a general election on Nov. 7 and the USDP wins by landslide while the NLD and other main opposition parties boycott. Thein Sein wins a Lower House seat in Naypyidaw’s Zabuthiri Township. Six days later, the term of her house arrest expires and Suu Kyi is released.
Feb. 4, 2011: Thein Sein is elected to lead the nation by Parliament’s presidential electoral college and on March 30 he is sworn into office.
Aug. 18, 2011: Thein Sein’s government formally initiates a peace process with the country’s armed rebel groups and ultimately secures bilateral ceasefire agreements with more than a dozen.
Aug. 19, 2011: The president and Suu Kyi meet for the first time in Naypyidaw and an official statement afterward describes the meeting as consisting of “frank and friendly discussions.”
Sept. 30, 2011: Thein Sein suspends the controversial Myitsone dam project in Kachin State in response to widespread public opposition. The decision is unprecedented and welcomed by many Burmese.
Jan. 13, 2012: Thein Sein’s government releases hundreds of political prisoners, including prominent activists like 88 Generation leaders Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi, as well as ethnic leaders. The president’s amnesty is welcomed both domestically and internationally.
2012: Suu Kyi decides to contest a by-election held on April 1. She contests in the Rangoon Division constituency of Kawhmu Township and she, along with her party, wins 43 seats out of 44 seats contested nationwide. Critics, however, say her presence in Parliament gives the government legitimacy.
Oct. 31, 2014: A meeting of 14 major political stakeholders is held in Naypyidaw and includes Thein Sein, Suu Kyi, commander-in-chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, Burma’s two vice presidents. It is held after Suu Kyi repeatedly called on the president to hold a four-party dialogue that would have brought together the president, Min Aung Hlaing, Union Parliament Speaker Shwe Mann and herself to discuss amending the Constitution. The meeting yields little.
April 10, 2015: A six-party dialogue is held in Naypyidaw, involving Thein Sein, both parliamentary speakers, the military commander-in-chief, Suu Kyi and ethnic representative Aye Maung. There is no specific outcome.
May 19, 2015: Thein Sein signs the first of four controversial “race and religious protection” bills proposed by a nationalist Buddhist group known as Ma Ba Tha. The other three pieces of legislation are also later signed.
June 25, 2015: Most USDP parliamentarians and the Burma Army’s representatives in the national legislature vote against amendments to the 2008 Constitution.
Aug. 12, 2015: Powerful Union Parliament Speaker Shwe Mann is removed from his post as joint-chairman of the USDP. Htay Oo is appointed to replace him. The USDP’s headquarters in Naypyidaw is surrounded by security forces in the late-night shakeup of the party leadership.
Aug. 13, 2015: An NLD spokesperson says Suu Kyi is displeased by the way Shwe Mann was expelled and treated by the government. His ouster brings a rift within the USDP into open view, a schism said to have been caused in part by the working relationship the speaker and Suu Kyi had established since she entered Parliament in 2012.
Oct. 15, 2015: Thein Sein presides over the signing of a “nationwide ceasefire agreement” between the government and eight armed rebel groups. Several other groups opt not to sign the accord, however, while others are excluded by the government. Suu Kyi declines an invitation to attend the ceremony.