A Visit to Yangon’s Drug Elimination Museum
If it is bizarre you seek, the Drug Elimination Museum is the place to go. Located in northeast Yangon, I had heard strange stories about the museum from a few expats who had visited and decided it was time I had to go see for myself. What I thought was casual exaggerations from my friends turned out to be true- the Drug Elimination Museum is one of the oddest places I have ever been in my entire life!
For a bit of background it is necessary to look at a few facts that are not publicly acknowledged in Myanmar. Sadly, the country is the second largest producer of opium, methamphetamines and heroin. Only Afghanistan ranks higher in production. The history runs quite deep, however, as opium- derived from poppies- has been grown for centuries in the Kachin and Shan States. The elderly and ill used to smoke opium to alive pain and it was used as a common anesthesia for doctors throughout the country. Under the British occupation in the late 1800s, opium began to be exported and was much more profitable than other crops such as rice and coffee. Thus it became a popular crop to grow particularly in the infamous area known as the ‘Golden Triangle’, where the borders of Laos, Thailand and Myanmar meet. Throughout the mid 1900s, the Myanmar military government promoted the growing of opium as it brought in substantial income to the country.
These days there is a strong push to eliminate the growing of opium. The United Nations, national Government and many other NGOs are promoting ‘crop swaps’, encouraging the growth of crops such as coffee, tea or corn instead of opium. Yet the labour involved and net profit is much lower than that of poppies so the trade continues to flourish. While most of the product is exported, some is still distributed domestically and the country faces a growing addiction problem especially in remote areas.
The Drug Elimination Museum is just one part of a government campaign to discourage the use of growing and using illegal drugs. I set off on a sunny Saturday morning with a friend to visit this unique museum, trying to drop any pre-conceived ideas I had dreamed up in my head. We arrived to find a massive three-story building with an impressive sized but empty parking lot. The ticket seller and security guards seemed slightly confused as to why we were there then hustled off to gather the tickets. We also noticed they switched on the electricity upon our arrival- clearly we were not at one of Yangon’s main attractions!
With a few hand gestures we realised we were to loop our way around the ground floor then continue up to the next two levels. The ground floor was bizarre- much as we expected- with a massive fake poppy plant extending to the ceiling in one corner and a few English and Burmese cartoons showing the horrors of drug use. A ‘house of horrors’ , which the guard told us was designed to scare school kids, was next- a blacklit room with a gloomy soundtrack. As we walked around the depictions on the wall were that of a young man who became addicted to drugs and saw his life fall to pieces. It was amusing but still carried an impact- one that I could imagine would certainly scare kids!
We then were unable to find the stairs so took the beautiful lift up to the 2nd and 3rd floors. The glass-enclosed elevator was one of the best I have seen in Myanmar! The second and third floors proved much more interesting. The displays examined the history of poppy and marijuana cultivation in Myanmar with life-like displays of hill tribe villages and fields. Moving forward in time, the museum’s displays then examined the efforts for eradication by UN agencies and the government. Whilst a bit fake in some parts- there was even a simulation of a bulldozer rolling over a confiscated pile of drugs- it was informative and gave the impression that progress was being made.
All-in-all we spent about 1.5 hours at the museum. We left with mixed emotions- clearly the growth of opium has supported many rural Burmese farmers over the years. But the impact it is having on the local people and countless drug-addicts abroad is tragic. The displays were certainly amusing at times and could use a bit of professional work but the message still got across to us. For a better future in Myanmar, this is a problem that must be dealt with immediately.
If you are looking for an informative yet bizarre look in to an unusual side of Myanmar, a visit to the Drug Elimination Museum is certainly recommended.
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