Why you should care
Go for the kitsch. Stay for the irony.
Consider yourself a fan of absurdist propaganda? Enjoy an almost comical degree of inadvertent symbolism and irony? Yangon’s Drug Elimination Museum in Myanmar’s old capital is a must-visit then.
While the country around Yangon tries its best to reform and develop after decades of self-imposed, military-ruled isolationism, its drug museum stands delightfully stuck in time. And stuck in its own world, trumpeting achievements in drug-busting never really accomplished beyond the minds of the kleptocratic generals who once held power — and with borderline laughable depictions of military might.
Situated just north of the city’s overstimulating downtown, the museum — with its message of a strong military helping life triumph over a drug-addled death — is built, ironically, on what was once Yangon’s largest cemetery … and the burial site of hundreds of pro-democracy students killed while protesting the old military junta. Walking around the perimeter fence, it’s hard to imagine the museum is only 16 years old. It was built in 2001, but a few dozen cycles of monsoons and blistering heat — not to mention a good dose of government neglect — have aged it decades more. But that only adds to its allure. At five stories tall, and about the length of a football pitch, it’s a massive building. Pigeons flying in and out of holes in the roof suggest it might be closed, but get closer to those large teak doors and a dozy guard, alerted to your presence, will ask for a few dollars to enter.
“Are we meant to be in here?” someone asks.
It’s even more bizarre inside. On the first floor, uniformed mannequins depict men of all backgrounds destroying opium crops within the infamous Golden Triangle, their rigid bodies half-heartedly threatening the wilting plastic poppies with limp machetes. The region, between Thailand, Myanmar and Laos, was and remains a hot spot for opium production, and Myanmar is exceeded by only Afghanistan in opium production worldwide. In another display, the mannequins have collapsed, leaving the soldiers literally leaning on their ethnic Shan cousins. Which is somewhat laughable: The mountainous state is still an active war zone between military and ethnic armed groups, many long-funded through … opium. Hmm.
The best part? The door that leads into a pitch-black room with yet unseen propaganda. “Are we meant to be in here?” someone asks. Suddenly, a worker with an apologetic smile darts in a hand and flicks a switch — she’s probably the only other person you will see on your visit. No crowds in this museum. Anyone familiar with heavy-handed public service announcements on drugs will be instantly familiar with what comes next (albeit this was a slightly more macabre version): A switch turns on an automated zombie hand — à la Thing from The Addams Family — that fruitlessly, comically tries to claw its way toward a pile of crudely cut and painted Styrofoam “pills” that are simply labeled “Drugs.”
Beyond the education in kitsch, there are many genuinely informative displays, like the life cycle of the opium plant and the explanations for how entrenched its production has become to many desperate farmers. But it’s the propaganda that makes it worth the visit. In many ways it feels like you’re walking around an exhibit in some future meta-museum — something that will be studied in the future to understand the disinformation tactics of yore. So why wait for that textbook to come out, when you can go to the source material now?
Go There: Yangon’s Drug Elimination Museum
- Entrance fee: A custodian at the seemingly deserted entrance demands around 3,000 kyat ($3) from foreigners and an additional 5,000 kyat ($5) for a camera fee.
- Directions: From downtown Yangon, jump in a taxi and head north along Pyay Road until you reach the Hanthawaddy Road intersection. Otherwise, follow the pin.
- Pro tip: Don’t bother with the camera fee. There’s not much in the way of photogenic panoramas — just pure propaganda.