All photos by Alex Palmer
A few hundred feet from glittering Junction Square Shopping Center, in the center of Burma’s former capital city Yangon, you’ll find the crumbling Drugs Elimination Museum. As an insight into the strangeness and paranoia that has pervaded Burmese society for decades—and that still linger today despite the country’s abrupt turn towards democracy and capitalism—the museum is sublime.
The first thing that strikes you about the museum compound is its eerie, Miss Havisham’s-house quiet. While most of Yangon is alive with the din and energy of the city's nearly 6 million inhabitants, the museum grounds are oppressively silent, unkempt, and nearly abandoned. The dense tropical vegetation lurking outside the walls seems poised to swallow the museum whole at any minute. Out front is a defunct water fountain, flanked by a garden overrun with weeds and brush. The packs of stray dogs that roam the compound easily outnumber visitors and employees combined, and flocks of black birds swoop by as they please.
Visitors are welcomed into the museum by a large portrait of junta leader Senior General Than Shwe, and a quote that is at once strange, defiant, and obsessively self-confident— “The drug abuse control because it is related to all the people of the entire world is a very huge and difficult task. We are willing to warmly welcome sincere participation by anybody. Even if there is no assistance whatsoever, we will do our utmost with whatever resources and capability we have in our hands to fight this drug menace threatening the entire humanity.”
A similar quote nearby, from another general, declares, “The big nations are giving human rights, democracy, and drug elimination as excuses in applying various means to dominate the small nations.” Independent newspapers are flourishing across Myanmar—but the legacy of five decades of leaders who equated freedom of speech with heroin use persists, even as the Drug Museum crumbles.
In the 1990s, at the peak of Myanmar’s opium production, the country’s ruling military junta—desperate for good P.R. after a series of crushed pro-democracy protests invited international condemnation—launched its very own war on drugs. At the time, there were almost 650 square miles of opium-producing fields scattered throughout Myanmar, and 80 percent of New York City’s street heroin arrived by way of Southeast Asia’s notorious Golden Triangle. The United States Embassy released a report in 1996 concluding that Myanmar’s “exports of opiates appear to be worth as much as all legal exports.”
The Drugs Eradication Museum was built in 2001 to commemorate the ongoing war on drugs and to educate the public about the dangers of drug use. On the first floor, visitors are introduced to the basics of the drug trade in Myanmar. Wall-sized maps display world heroin and cocaine trafficking routes, with rainbows of Brite Lite bulbs showing drugs pulsating outwards from Myanmar to markets in North America, Europe, and Russia.
Father on, black and white photos of stern-faced state leaders receiving education in drug prevention flank meticulous records of military offensives, which document the precise quantity of detonators, magazines, bombs, and drugs captured in each operation. Against the walls are life-sized mannequins of soldiers reenacting the greatest hits of the army’s drug war, complete with pints of fake blood.
Though the museum’s exhibits tout countless government successes, Myanmar’s efforts to stamp out drug use have had mixed results. Myanmar’s opium production peaked at 1,800 metric tons in 1993, decreasing 80 percent by 2006. Now, however, opium poppy farming is back on the rise. In 2005, the United Nations Office of Drug and Crime estimated that 200 square miles of Myanmar’s farmland were devoted to opium production, and in 2012 that number increased by 17 percent. Today, Myanmar is the world’s second largest producer of opium, behind only Afghanistan.
But opium is only part of the problem: Myanmar is now the world’s largest producer of methamphetamine. In 2010 alone, the country exported one billion tablets to neighboring Thailand, including the wildly-popular Yaba (“madness drug”), a potent mix of methamphetamines and caffeine that was invented for horses laboring in hilly, undeveloped rural Myanmar.
A toxic combination of corruption, poverty, and ethnic conflict make drug production especially intractable in Myanmar. For years, the junta discreetly encouraged and supported the drug trade: profits were laundered exclusively through companies owned by junta leaders and their friends, keeping those in power rich and happy. The same economic motivation applies at the bottom of society: poor rural farmers can earn nine to 15 times more profit per acre on opium than on rice. Opium is also a safer investment, since the price is less susceptible to changes in the global market. More than 90 percent of the country’s production originates in the large and lawless Shan State, where ethnic insurgent armies promote opium production as a source of funds for their battle against the central government. Rather than acknowledging these deep-seated local drivers of the drug trade, though, the first floor of the museum closes with a life-size diorama of a mischievous Westerner—complete with a pink blazer and black top hat—arriving via steamship to introduce drugs into Burmese society. For the junta, obsessed with closing off Myanmar to the outside world, drugs were just another foreign menace to be stamped out via the “Burmese Way to Socialism.”
Upstairs, the museum’s second floor serves as an odd shrine to dozens of generals. As you’d expect in a country run by a junta, every painting in the Drugs Eradication Museum—state leaders in fields of poppy, state leaders greeting honest farmers, state leaders directing military advances—crams in as many leaders as possible. The Central Committee for Drug Abuse Control is extensively documented, as are the strategies, methods, and tactics adopted by the Central Committee in the drug war.
Judging by the size of the accompanying signs, Central Committee is most proud of two accomplishments: cooperation with regional allies—each country in Southeast Asia, as well as China and the United States, gets its own exhibit—and wiping out ingredients and tools (“precursors”) used for drug production. “NO PRECURSORS NO DRUGS” declares one display in ceiling-high 3-D letters, like an elementary school student’s warped PowerPoint project. On each letter of “NO DRUGS” is a different precursor to drug production, from assorted machinery to chemicals and illicit crops.
The most popular second-floor display is a photo collection of captured drug producers and drug traffickers, who have been made to stand beside their illicit goods with heads hanging low in shame. Beside the mugshots are photos of bulldozers crushing the captured drugs, which have been arranged in elaborate flower-like patterns for demolition, and state leaders pressing buttons to incinerate the drugs in grand explosions. An interactive display gives visitors the chance to try their own hand at lighting drugs on fire, but unfortunately it’s broken. As consolation, the museum has posted printed PowerPoint slides tracking Myanmar’s declining opium production—but the slide cuts off just as production begins to increase in 2006.
On the third floor, the education aspect of the museum veers into nightmarish warnings. Coming off the elevator, visitors are greeted with a colorful wall-length mural depicting all of Myanmar in joyous celebration. “WITHOUT DRUGS LIFE WILL BE BEAUTIFUL,” it says, leading you straight to the drug display unit, where hundreds of fist-sized ecstasy and methamphetamine pills are displayed and extensively documented by name (Adam, Boomerang, Dino, V.I.P., Cal, PT, Pigs, Superman…). The exhibit anticipates the fun you might get out of the colors and cartoonish names of the pills. “These tablets look beautiful,” it says, “but the dangers in using them are much, too much…”
If the pills have lifted your spirits, the next exhibit is there to drag you back to earth. Five snapshots, each illustrated with life-sized mannequins and background paintings, trace the life of a young Burmese boy. When we begin, the boy is thriving. “Some flowers are blooming,” the first snapshot says, and we see the boy, well-dressed and smiling, standing in a beautiful field of flowers with his classmates. Next door, where “Some flowers are pale, poisoned by Drugs,” the light is an ominous dark purple as young men inject and smoke various drugs. “Say no – to drugs” warns the third snapshot, but it is already too late: the boy sits on a white stool, disheveled and high out of his mind, looking older than his years.
Then the real consequences begin. The fourth snapshot, “Stimulant drugs – stairway to insanity” is packed with people dying in creative ways: one man jumps off a bus, another hangs himself, a third dies of disease, and a woman stabs herself in the wrist with a knife, her face emotionless as blood spurts out. Finally comes the final snapshot: “From insanity to death,” a hellish landscape of decaying bodies cast across an abandoned graveyard. Worms crawl out of decomposing intestines and a wild-eyed pig devours a dead man’s shoulder as a vulture watches silently from a nearby tree.
Lest you conclude that their own death by stimulant drugs is imminent, visitors leave the graveyard scene to arrive at an extensive display of the junta’s efforts to keep Myanmar safe. Public education campaigns, crop subsidies, “electronic media” units (computers, circa 1980) are on prominent display alongside a mock rehabilitation center. At the center of the third floor, a huge painting shows junta members marching triumphantly down a red carpet, flanked by dancing, cheering peasants on both sides and a golden rainbow above.
Rather than close on this happy image, the museum has a final exhibit documenting “Victims of Drug” by drug type. The walls are lined with graphic photos of sick, emaciated, and dying drug users; a mural on “Horrors of Drug Abuse” is introduced by a menacing skeleton motioning toward you to join him. At the skeleton’s feet are jars of decomposed brains, livers, kidneys, and miscarried fetuses, all, we are told, the results of illicit drug use.
Back at the entrance, a security guard and the front desk workers are napping. Their boredom is hardly surprising—the museum’s rare visitors are mostly curious foreigners. For Burmese, there is a much more enticing attraction just down the road: the bustling new Junction Square mall, with its gleaming, foreign shops, packed food court, and cinema.