Atlantic Monthly

Burmese Daze

Originally appeared in The Atlantic.

The Drug Elimination Museum, a brutalist eyesore about the size of Grand Central Station, occupies a weedy lot next to the state-television headquarters in Rangoon, Burma’s most important city. The building is silent and sepulchral, like a cavernous opium den whose patrons have set down their pipes and slipped into nap time. Since 2011, the military-allied government of Burma has softened restrictions on tourism, but hardly anyone seeks out this particular attraction. A mile and a half away is the golden spire of Shwedagon Pagoda, the foremost Buddhist monument in Burma and an architectural, aesthetic, and spiritual must-see. But for fans of irony and unintentional humor, this vast temple of propaganda should be a pilgrimage site in its own right.

Completed in 2001, it features three floors of solemn exhibits about drug abuse and government efforts to stamp it out (and to earn favor as an American ally in the war on drugs). The message would be more effective if anyone actually bothered to visit. The museum barely came to life when I showed up one afternoon, apparently that day’s sole visitor. Half a dozen bored young female employees took turns following me around, switching on the lights seconds before I arrived at an exhibit, and switching them off as I left.

The first sections presented small-scale dioramas of the early opium trade, featuring red-coated toy British soldiers pushing dope on unsuspecting Burmese. An enormous model of a poppy, towering like a mature cousin of the bloodsucker in Little Shop of Horrors, leaned against a wall. Nearby, gorgeous antique pipes, resembling delicately carved bone flutes or magic wands, were mounted behind glass.

Other dioramas and displays depicted military operations to break up drug gangs and destroy their crops and facilities. From the museum’s portrayal, you’d think the army was merely busting evil drug lords. The rest of the story goes unmentioned: for some ethnic minorities that rely on farming, poppy cultivation brings in easy money (while legitimate crops don’t), and proceeds from drug sales have fueled ethnic rebellions on Burma’s periphery. The government wants to destroy the poppy fields less because it hates heroin than because it aims to subdue those who don’t submit to its power.

I studied the exhibits slowly—too slowly for the guides. They eventually gave up, slumping in their chairs and leaving me to wander alone, supplementing natural light with the glow of my cellphone. My footsteps echoed through the museum, where the only other sounds were the soft whistling snores of the staff.

One docent perked to life, finally, when I reached a locked door. She retrieved a key and escorted me wordlessly into a dark corridor. I looked back to see her grinning mischievously in the gloom. She turned on a crackly soundtrack—an Elgar violin piece playing in the background as a Burmese woman began softly speaking in almost entirely incomprehensible, robotic English. The lights came up dimly, and the voice proceeded to narrate a gallery of horrors designed to scare me off junk forever.

The hallway was lined with a series of life-size dioramas depicting chapters in a macabre tale of addiction. The first scene, staged with stiffly posed mannequins, looked like a particularly lame house party, with some young kids playing guitars and a single whiskey bottle filled with a colorless liquid nearby on a coffee table. On the soundtrack, thumping electronic music took over where Elgar left off, and then, with an ominous change of mood—I half-expected to hear canned laughter from Vincent Price—the next scene presented a dank underground cellblock. A few men in rags sat chained there, too weak to fight vermin for supper. In the next diorama, addicts lay sprawled on the ground in the dark countryside. The leg of one of them had been hacked off at the knee.

For minutes I was left to contemplate the grim odyssey. From classical music to guitars to dungeons and finally gangrene—these are your legs on drugs. The music switched to Mendelssohn, perhaps to remind me of the superiority of a drug-free, violin-based lifestyle. When the soundtrack stopped entirely, the docent invited me to press a button to activate the last scene. This was a trap. I pressed, and triggered a loud whirring. A mechanical claw—it looked like it had come off a plastic dinosaur—reached out from the diorama to grab my hand. Death had arrived, and I was startled enough to smile. The whirring stopped, the claw retracted, and the docent gave a shrug to signify that the show was over.

She led me out and shuffled away to resume her siesta. I finished the museum tour on my own, pausing to read the nicknames for dozens of types of Ecstasy, check out the fine print on faded boxes of roofies, and examine scenes of government agents crushing cough-syrup bottles with steamrollers. The intended message of the museum was clear: drugs, bad; military rule, good.

But to an outsider looking in, it was perfect absurdity: Reefer Madness meetsTriumph of the Will, staged in near-darkness and drawing no crowds. The best hope for a propaganda museum is that it might expose more than it intends, and that the mask of piety might slip and reveal authentic tragedy or comedy or pathos. Or, if you’re lucky, all three: when that velociraptor claw reached out, it delivered a hokey thrill, enough to bring any fan of irony to a state of nirvana that Shwedagon itself couldn’t match.


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