Nancy from Seattle Reports Back About First-Ever Reality Tour to Burma

NLD office- Nancy:KirstenThe following post was written by Nancy Penrose of Seattle about her recent trip to Burma with Global Exchange.

In April 2013, I was a member of the first-ever Reality Tour delegation to Burma.  I chose to go with Global Exchange to this country that is also known as Myanmar* because I wanted to get beneath the typical tourist surfaces; I wanted to learn directly from the people themselves about their launch on the road to democratic reforms. By the end of the trip, I had been rewarded with a wide spectrum of conversations and insights. I felt humbled by the time that many busy people devoted to meeting with us.

We  spoke with leaders of the Generation 88 Students, many of whom spent years as political prisoners and who now work to promote a peaceful and open society. In Yangon, at the headquarters of the National League for Democracy, the political party led by 1991 Nobel Prize winner Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, we met with a woman who holds an NLD seat in Parliament. Others we spoke with on this trip included hotel owners and managers, professors and businessmen, a Buddhist nun who has founded her own school, medical doctors, leaders of micro-finance programs, puppeteers, and even comedians who have paid the price of imprisonment for making jokes about the government.  We chatted with vendors of tourist souvenirs and their children who were helping out during a school break.Kids as monks

Our delegation was small, only four of us, accompanied by our enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide, Cho, who was also our translator. It seemed that everyone we spoke with has high hopes for their country even as they assess and acknowledge the great challenges that must be overcome to continue on the path of democratic reforms.

Myanmar is emerging from 50 years of dictatorships that have morphed through military juntas and socialism and a kleptocratic group of powerful and wealthy men close to the military and known as “the cronies.” Significant steps toward democracy were taken in 2008; a quasi-civilian government was established in 2010; and in April 2012, NLD members stood for election and won 43 seats in Parliament. Reforms are launched, but five decades of dictatorships have left what is often a crumbling or nonexistent physical infrastructure and a citizenry that often needs empowering and educating about a government’s responsibilities and duties to its people.

We visited four places–Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan, and Inle Lake–and were delighted by beauty in each. In Yangon, there was the gleaming gold zedi, or stupa, of Shwedagon Paya, a temple that every Burmese Buddhist tries to visit at least once in his or her life. We were there on a Sunday, a day of no work for many Burmese, and we were surrounded by worshippers, families picnicking in the shade of pavilions, and novitiate processions where young boys preparing to join the monkhood were carried on the shoulders of friends and families under golden parasols.Shwedagon Near Mandalay, we strolled the famous U Bein Bridge and watched a farmer herd his flock of hundreds of ducks, saw women bent to their task of harvesting groundnuts from fields exposed and planted as Taungthanam Lake retreated with the dry season. View from bridge We spent a day on the Ayerarwaddy (Irrawaddy) River traveling from Mandalay to Bagan and were grateful for the shade of the woven rattan roof. (Temperatures in Yangon, Mandalay, and Bagan were hitting 40 degrees C (104 degrees F) or higher every day.) We watched the sun turn red as it cast its final rays of the day over the thousands of 11th- to 13th-century temples spread across the plain at Bagan. And finally, we admired the skills of the fishermen of Inle Lake who balance on the ends of their slender wooden boats and, in a delicate ballet, row with one leg wrapped around the paddle so that their hands are free to cast and retrieve their nets.

These indelible scenes are experienced by many tourists who travel to Myanmar, but as part of the Global Exchange delegation we added depth and context. We discovered the serene persistence and determination of a young Buddhist nun who runs a school in the suburbs of Yangon and who worries about the coming rainy season when the lack of drainage infrastructure may leave the school marooned by water for days at a time. We heard from Bagan’s Director of the Ministry of Culture about the challenges that arise owing to the limited funding available to preserve and protect this ancient and rich heritage site. We spoke with tourism officials who lament the lack of enough hotel rooms to serve the burgeoning numbers of visitors to Myanmar. We learned that in Yangon there are only 2,000 rooms considered tourist quality, even as tourist arrivals in Myanmar reached 1,000,000 in 2012, compared to some 800,000 in 2011. Toward the end of our trip, as we left the beauty and sweet cool air of Inle Lake, we met with the leader of the microfinance group Muditar, based in Nyaungshwe at the northern end of the Lake, who described their partnership with the Shanta project in Colorado and the midwifery, water, and coffee plantation projects they are undertaking with the Pa O tribal villages in the nearby mountains.

For me the trip was a kaleidoscope of experiences in the company of fellow travelers who care passionately about equality and positive social change in our world. My photos, journals, and souvenirs are all attempts to help keep the journey alive. Now, when I read about events in Myanmar, I understand so much more, I care, I pay attention. And I watch for ways to help.

*Regarding the question of using Burma or Myanmar, I refer readers to this article  in Mizzima, a media organization formerly in exile that is now based in Yangon.


Would YOU like to travel to Burma and experience it for yourself? Join us in building people to people ties in Burma on an upcoming journey co-sponsored by Ethical Traveler.

Trip Dates: October 28, 2013 – November 8, 2013

On November 13th 2010 Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s pro democracy leader and Nobel Peace laureate, was released from captivity for the first time in 7 1/2 years.  She has spent more than 15 years in detention, most of it under house arrest, and has come to symbolize the Burmese people’s struggle for freedom.

Six women laureates of the Nobel Women’s Initiative welcomed the release of their sister laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi with a written statement which originally appeared on the Nobel Women’s Initiative website. They’ve graciously allowed us to share it with you all here:

We women Nobel Peace Laureates welcome our sister Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to her freedom from detention.  For years she has been unjustly confined to her home and denied the opportunity to see her family and friends, to participate in politics and to live in freedom.  Despite the efforts of the military regime in Burma to deny the people of Burma the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi,  her strength, vision and faith continued to guide them in their ongoing struggle for rights and democracy.  Although she has not been able to meet with us and others around the world who are inspired by her courage, we have often recollected her words and her principles in the pursuit of building peace with justice and equality.  We hope that we will soon have the opportunity to meet with her in person and until that time send her our best regards.

Since her most recent release, Aung San Suu Kyi has publicly offered support to the over 2,000 political prisoners still in Burmese captivity. She’s met with political prisoners’ families and agreed to work with the country’s military regime to see that the prisoners are freed.

Visit Human Rights Watch to sign a petition calling for the release of Burma’s political prisoner.

Originally posted at

After nearly two years of work and consistent opposition from big oil, substantive provisions of legislation initially introduced by Senators Lugar (R-IN) and Cardin (D-MD) as the Energy Security Through Transparency Act (ESTT), were signed into law by President Obama as Section 1504 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act on Wednesday.   Offered by Senator Leahy (D-VT), the provision will require both US and internationally-based companies registered with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to publish what they pay to governments for the commercial development of oil, gas, and minerals, while creating a new international standard for transparency in the extractive industry.

The provision, which will apply to 90 percent of the largest internationally operating oil and gas companies, made the cut during an all-night House-Senate conference committee meeting over the Wall Street reform bill.

The bill will have significant impacts in countries like Burma, where a lack of transparency has contributed to corruption, authoritarianism, and gross human rights violations, directly linked to the natural gas industry. According to EarthRights International’s new report,Energy Insecurity: How Total, Chevron, and PTTEP Contribute to Human Rights Violations, Financial Secrecy, and Nuclear Proliferation in Burma (Myanmar), the lack of publicly available information on revenues received by the military junta in Burma has facilitated the misuse of these funds, including massive diversion of resource-related public monies.

In fact, data from a leaked IMF report indicates 70 percent of Burma’s foreign exchange reserves are from gas exports and that gas-related payments from corporations, amounting to billions of dollars, contributed only one percent of total budget revenue.  That means that less than one percent of the largest source of income for the Burmese state actually enters the state budget. Had these revenues entered the state budget, they would have accounted for 57 percent of the total 2007/2008 budget.  The majority of the gas revenues are believed to be held in offshore banks, with reports indicating that hundreds of millions are channeled into the personal bank accounts of individuals closely associated with the ruling military junta in two offshore banks in Singapore.

When this new transparency bill takes effect — likely in 2012 — companies including Chevron, Total, the Chinese National Petroleum Corporation, the Chinese National Offshore Oil Corporation, and others will be forced to disclose how much they pay the regime in Burma, something they have been resisting for years. For communities and civil society inside and outside of Burma, this information can be used in attempts to hold the authorities in Burma accountable for how these monies are spent.

The reach of this bill is truly global. Communities in Nigeria, Kazakhstan, Algeria, Brazil, Venezuela, Mexico, Russia, Columbia, Thailand, and around the world will know how much their governments receive from corporations including Shell, BP, Chevron, Exxon, Newmont Mining, and most of the other energy and mining majors operating in their countries.

EarthRights International was active throughout the legislative process, lobbying the U.S. Congress directly while providing public education, letter writing, advocacy, and training to other organizations in support of the transparency provision as a member of Publish What You Pay United States, a coalition of 32 nongovernmental organizations that advocated for the legislation.

This bill takes aim squarely at the “resource curse,” the documented pattern in countries rich in natural resources where this wealth leads to negative development outcomes. Senator Lugar (R-IN), one of the main supporters of the transparency provision summarized the importance of this measure quite well, saying: “History shows that oil, gas reserves, and minerals can frequently be a bane, not a blessing, for poor countries leading to corruption, wasteful spending, military adventurism, and instability, and too often oil money intended for a nation’s poor ends up lining the pockets of the rich, or is squandered on showcase projects instead of productive investments.”

While a major victory for communities in resource-rich countries, there are still several stages before the legislation is implemented and companies begin to report their payments. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) must issue proposed rules that provide detailed guidance for companies covered by the bill. This process will take up to one year to complete. Groups like EarthRights International and our Publish What You Pay US colleagues will play an active role in this rule-making process, ensuring that critical information on payments is available in an effective, timely, and complete manner. Once the final rules are issued, companies will be required to disclose payments in their annual filings to the SEC going forward.

We expect that Big Oil will continue to resist these efforts as they did with the legislation. The American Petroleum Institute (API), a national trade association representing about 400 corporate members, including major oil and gas companies, made several misleading claims in a letter to members of the Senate in 2010, stating:  “API feels that requiring only U.S-listed extractive companies to disclose revenues creates a competitive disadvantage for these companies in the global energy marketplace.” Members of the US Senate were not persuaded by this specious claim, with Senator Cardin calling API’s claims, “a red herring.”

This bill may be the beginning of the end for the cloud of secrecy and corruption associated with resource extraction around the globe. With other countries like the UK considering similar measures, there is a great hope that revenue transparency becomes a norm for the industry, and we can begin to see the responsible use of these critical revenues for the benefit of local and national communities.

For more information on the transparency bill, visit

Photo Credit: Rainforest Action Network

As a student, former Military Intelligence Officer, and veteran, I’ve spent the last six years studying political violence and its causes.

Simply put, when the process of dialogue between disputing parties breaks down and the aggrieved party is denied recourse through the political and legal systems, its members take the next logical step, which military theorist Carl von Clausewitz describes as the “continuation of politics by other means.”

This can be observed in places such as Iraq and Nigeria, developing nations which have three things in common: oil, governments that rely more on fear than representation to maintain power, and foreign investors who collude with these governments in order to gain access that resource.

In the case of Iraq this has led to sectarian conflict and attacks on U.S. troops, who are in the position of having to preserve a fragile security situation while Chevron and other companies attempt to quietly exploit their window of opportunity to re-enter the country.

Nigeria, in comparison, has lost up to 25% of its oil production capacity due to insurgent attacks in the Niger Delta, where Chevron contaminates the air and water with impunity and has directly supported the Nigerian military in its brutal operations against peaceful demonstrators. Faced with the devastation of their food and water supply and the failure of their governments to hold these companies accountable, it is not difficult to understand why citizens of these countries turned to armed conflict in order to change the companies’ cost-benefit analysis.

On May 26 at Chevron’s annual shareholder meeting, I witnessed Chevron refused entry to proxy shareholders from Ecuador, Burma, Nigeria, Colombia, and numerous other places around the world which have been severely harmed by the company. I cannot help but wonder what these individuals’ communities will think after they return from thousands of miles of travel without having been afforded the opportunity to make a simple statement before Chevron’s new CEO and Board of Directors: treat us like human beings.

The air was thick with contempt in front of Chevron’s Houston headquarters as these individuals were escorted out by smirking security officials after being informed that their papers did not meet the company’s qualifications for entry. My thought, watching these community leaders exit the building in compliance, was that Chevron had just made a major strategic miscalculation.

We in the U.S. are fortunate enough to still have a political system which, however frustrating it can often be, still makes it possible to effect change through peaceful political and legal means. Chevron is an American company. Therefore we have a responsibility to hold it accountable for its human rights violations around the world and to impose political and financial costs on it for these violations.

Through a series of long term regulatory and policy battles we will make it increasingly costly for companies such as Chevron to operate with impunity and simultaneously make renewable alternatives more attractive to investors, the ultimate objective being to bring the power of energy production back into the hands of the people. The technology to accomplish this exists today. Our challenge is to win over or oust those politicians who stand in our way through the electoral process.

Our security, our democracy, and our moral authority in the world are at stake in what we will look back on as one of the great political battles of the 21st century.

T.J. Buonomo is a Chevron Program Associate with Global Exchange and founder and editor of Citizens for a Sovereign and Democratic Iraq.  He is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy and former Military Intelligence Officer, U.S. Army.