Late for Nowhere

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Posts Tagged ‘Defence Services Museum Myanmar Burma

Blitzkrieg: A lightning-fast tour of Myanmar’s Defence Services Museum

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Years ago when it was located in Yangon, the Defence Services Museum was second only to the Drug Elimination Museum in weirdness.

A posted sign requested a US$50 camera fee from foreigners, and an old army helicopter on display in the compound had been turned into a grimy, miniature shantytown with museum employees living inside and tattered laundry hanging from the rotor blades. Bored gallery attendants sometimes caught afternoon naps in the back seat of the Rolls Royce Phantom that had belonged to Sao Shwe Thaik, the first president of Burma (1948-1952). One friend of mine who visited was told that if he brought his own can of petrol, he could start the car and take it for a quick spin.

More alarmingly, a young expat acquaintance who ventured to the museum alone in 2005 was pulled into the gatehouse by a female security guard and subjected to a hostile interrogation, with questions ranging from why she wanted to visit the museum to whether she was a virgin.

Alas, the day finally came when the government announced that the museum would be relocated to Nay Pyi Taw, thereby depriving Yangon of one of its greatest wonders.

Construction on the Nay Pyi Taw venue started in May 2010, and the new Defence Services Museum was opened to the public on March 18, 2012, “to hail the 67th Anniversary [of] Armed Forces Day”, The New Light of Myanmar reported at the time. At the ceremony, Commander-in Chief of Defence Services General Min Aung Hlaing “pressed the button to unveil the stone inscription of the Defence Services Museum and sprinkled scented water on it” before touring the sprawling 603.68-acre compound, which included separate buildings dedicated to the Army, Navy and Air Force “with encouraging exhibition”.

I was unable to make it to Nay Pyi Taw for the opening, as much as I longed to be there. But last month I finally visited with a local friend to see how Defence Services Museum version 2.0 compares with the original.

Outside, a work crew was cleaning and repainting the numerous helicopters and airplanes on display. Two uniformed guides who met us upon arrival explained that the aircraft are maintained once a year, a process that takes about one month. Everything looked new and clean, and while we saw a few workers taking lunch breaks in the shade of jet fighters, no one appeared to be using the cockpits as a permanent dwelling.




I had been warned ahead of time that seeing everything at the museum would require more than a day. With only about three hours to spare, our first choice was the monolithic Army building. Our car was the only vehicle in the large parking lot. My Myanmar friend remarked, “All the buildings look impressive, but no one comes to see. It’s a waste.”


The empty parking lot.

In direct opposition to the old museum, the new one is sparkling clean, with adequate lighting and galleries staffed by attendants in military uniform. The exhibits are well-labeled in Myanmar and English, and the section on Myanmar’s ancient kingdoms is particularly informative: A large wall chart lays out the accession of kings, and detailed maps illustrate the extent of various kingdoms throughout history. There are diagrams of ancient battle formations and displays of armor and weapons.

The purpose of the museum, however, is to create and cement historicizing myths of Myanmar’s military might, and as we advanced chronologically through the “encouraging exhibition”, the information gaps became increasingly obvious.

This first became apparent to me while viewing two huge paintings depicting a couple of battles the British lost to the Burmese in 1824 and 1825. Nothing wrong with highlighting a few rare victories, but there is a noticeable lack of context: in particular, the fact that although these skirmishes were won by the Burmese, they were part of a larger war that was ultimately lost, as were the two wars that followed against the same opponents.


Painting depicting the British defeat at the Battle of Wettigan (1825).

The sections on the Burma Independence Army and the Burma Defence Army include maps of marching routes and impressive displays of weapons and other equipment, but the role that the British and US armies played in driving the Japanese out of the country is unacknowledged. World War II was won, it appears, solely through the efforts of Burmese freedom fighters.


An odd shift occurs in the post-1962 era, where display cases detail Tatmadaw (armed forces) operations against Communists and ethnic minority groups year-by-year: While the Myanmar-language labels are significantly longer and more detailed than elsewhere in the museum, English translations are suddenly nowhere to be seen. Foreign visitors are therefore kept in the dark concerning the Army’s take on subjects such as “The 1988 Affair”, “Internal Peace Negotiations” and “Ceremony of Cadet Passing Out Parade”.

We spent more than two hours in this first gallery, and with time running out we practically sprinted through rooms dedicated to engineering (displays included road and bridge projects, knot-tying techniques and landmine-clearing technology), ordnance and psychological warfare. Other galleries in the Army building were left unexplored, and we didn’t even think about entering the Air Force and Navy buildings.


A wonder of engineering courtesy of the Myanmar Army.


Tatmadaw-approved knots.

In virtually every aspect but quirkiness, the Nay Pyi Taw Defence Services Museum is vastly superior to the old one in Yangon, but one thing has not changed: the paranoia that comes with wondering whether one is being baited by gallery attendants.

One friend who visited the Yangon museum in 2009 was followed around by an in-house guide who made jokes about the decrepit state of Myanmar’s naval armada, and also commented sarcastically on the fact that all photographs of former Prime Minister U Khin Nyunt had been removed from the galleries following his arrest in 2004.

I had a similar experience in Nay Pyi Taw. One gallery attendant, indicating the long series of displays recounting “Tatmadaw operations”, commented, “Some of these photos are just for show. They’re a little different from what really happened.”

Another attendant, resplendent in his freshly pressed Army uniform, told us that he felt bad for the Tatmadaw soldiers who died fighting in Kokang, but that he was not proud of what was occurring in that region.

“The Kokang leader is just a drug dealer, but our army started the fight in the name of self-defence so we could get popular support from the people. The fighting is not necessary,” he said.

Me and my Myanmar friend listened politely, nodding but keeping our comments to ourselves. Like many things in this country, where obfuscation so often trumps transparency, it was impossible to know where our conspirators really stood. END


A long hallway between galleries.


The Tatmadaw: Defender of the country, manufacturer of balls.


Written by latefornowhere

April 5, 2015 at 5:21 am