Rose-Tinted History at Rangoon’s Drugs Elimination Museum

By Simon Roughneen 23 August 2013

RANGOON — If you’ve been to the Ho Chi Minh Museum and nearby mausoleum in Hanoi, Rangoon’s Drugs Elimination Museum has a familiar feel during Burma’s monsoon season, when a humid grayness hangs over the three-story building—a sweatier Rangoon version of Hanoi’s hoary and drizzly December days.

From the models of towns and replicas of disused military hardware to the grainy black-and-white archival photos and Panglossian propaganda, the displays inside both buildings are broadly similar. Side by side, what’s missing from the Rangoon version is the embalmed corpse of Naw Kham, Lo Hsing Han, Khun Sa or any of the other better-known drug lords to have lived and died in Burma in recent decades

There’s nowhere to behold Lo, nor indeed seemingly any mention of these men in the entire three story display. Instead, after a US$3 entrance fee and a $5 camera charge, the first thing a visitor sees—after small talking with smiling, inquisitive museum staff and dodging a couple of Rangoon’s ubiquitous street dogs loafing around the front door—is a yellow-lit icon of Burma’s last military dictator, Snr-Gen Than Shwe, so laden with medals that it’s a wonder the picture itself doesn’t fall flat on the floor.

To the right is a painted rendering of a photo of the now-retired junta head, posing with colleagues while a division commander in 1981, after capturing the Suwinho opium refinery camp during the Burma Army’s “Moe Hein” anti-narcotics operations.

And to the left is Maung Aye, then the deputy commander-in-chief of the Burma Army, shaking hands and smiling with ethnic Kokang leaders—a rendering of a photo taken in 2000 and, in a mocking way, a perhaps prophetic image to place in this museum. Nine years later, the same army stormed the Kokang stronghold near the Sino-Burmese border, driving tens of thousands of refugees into China’s Yunnan province.

Upstairs, a bucolic painting of a village in the Kokang region—said to be drug-free—shows children playing and earnest farmers toiling amicably in the fields, planting vegetables where once they grew poppies.

Further on, there’s a historical segue, where it is made clear that opium growing and drug use are foreign imports long-resisted by Burma’s kings. Citing an initial introduction of the plant from India—perhaps by way of European traders knocking around the region—Burma’s real drug wars began after Perfidious Albion’s 19th century conquest of Burma, the same century as the Opium Wars in China. After the British forced opium onto the Chinese, the story goes, opium cultivation made its way to independent Burma by way of the Kuomintang, who fled China after Mao’s takeover.

“The habit of eating, drinking and smoking opium is not a Myanmar tradition and was introduced to the country by foreigners from abroad,” reads one banner.

But didacticisms aside, there are plenty of artifacts, including old opium pipes from Burma’s ethnic regions. Weighty tubes with ornate carvings from Kachin State, side by side with thinner, more functional-looking pipes from Shan State that are flute-like and delicate. Hanging from one of the Kachin pipes is a red and green tassel, the Kachin colors, in what must only be an archly federal gesture on the part of the museum’s curators.

Around the corner, from inside what was moments before a locked darkroom, a guide peers out. “Come and see the display,” she says. “It shows the bad health caused by the narcotic drug.” An offer not to be refused, and inside the U-shaped tunnel, photos of emaciated and track-marked addicts are introduced by a robotic voiceover, backed by violins that give way to an incongruous and tacky-sounding techno as the display moves on. Next up are mannequins representing young Burmese in what look to be harmless-enough settings—some playing rock music, others drinking, then couples about to be caught in flagrante delicto. But finally, through some nebulous sequencing, the youths transform into addled and grisly looking addicts at death’s door. A salutary lesson is meant no doubt, perhaps in non-sequiturs.

More history upstairs, where Than Shwe again features, posing stiff-necked and stone-faced beside UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. Next, though not quite Vladimir Putin slouching at the back of the class, the former dictator almost cracks a smile, more relaxed with China’s Jiang Zemin and Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamed. Onward, and still more photos of international meetings about drug eradication followed by more montage-homages to the Burma Army’s counter-narcotics offensives.

As is often the case with such museums, the fare at the Drugs Elimination Museum sins more by omission than commission. Burma’s Army had a record of appalling human rights abuses in ethnic minority areas where drugs were grown (today mostly in Shan State), and there are known drug lords doubling as parliamentarians in Naypyidaw today.

And while the country has long ceded its spot as the world’s biggest opium grower to Afghanistan, it remains a clear second, accounting for 23 percent of the land used for illicit poppy cultivation and 10 percent of global opium production, according to the latest World Drug Report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

The Drugs Elimination Museum is run by the Central Committee for Drug Abuse Control (CCDAC), Burma’s anti-narcotics agency, which is part of the Ministry of Home Affairs. CCDAC Deputy Director General Lt-Col Zaw Lin Htun described Burma’s drug production as more than just a law enforcement problem. “It involves socioeconomic development in the poppy cultivation areas,” he told The Irrawaddy.

These days Burma is not just a source of opium, but of methamphetamines—much of which is funneled to an estimated one million users in Thailand. In 2010, the US Congressional Research Service estimated Burma’s total drugs export trade to be worth between $1 billion and $2 billion per year, a wide-ranging figure that shows the difficulty in getting a clear picture of the drugs industry in Burma.

But the Drugs Elimination Museum—ontological warts and all—is a compelling stopover for a visitor to Rangoon, despite all its quirks and the unintended fun factor.

It seems, however, that not many tourists—or locals, for that matter—know of or are interested in visiting the museum. During two hours spent at the complex, not one other visitor showed up, and so apparently unexpected was the visit that museum staff had to throw on the lights inside the hall, an hour after opening time.

“Nowadays this place is very quiet sir,” a guide on the third floor said with a shrug. “About 50 people come here some days, sometimes not as many.”

Outside, the first thing a visitor sees after walking in the gate—and the last thing before departing the complex—are precision-arranged rows of shrubs in front of the museum entrance, tended by hatted gardeners.

They couldn’t be, could they? It would be too much.

“No, sir, roses. Red and pink,” one of the gardeners said, pulling up the brow of his hat for a moment, before going back to watering the rose bushes, a couple of which had started to bloom.