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Museums Showcase Burma's Erased History

Published by MAC on 2005-11-17

Museums Showcase Burma's Erased History

By Veronika Ruff

17th November 2005

An unusual and intriguing insight into "normal" life in beleaguered Burma is provided by a western journalist

At a trio of quirky museums in Rangoon, glittering gems, glamorous but dusty photos, and the relics of an independence martyr help illustrate the past and present of this stunning but tragic Southeast Asian nation.

Just east of the soaring Shwedagon pagoda, the crown jewel of sightseeing in the capital, sits the Bogyoke Aung San Museum. A secluded 1920s house perched like a haunted Victorian mansion on a large hill, the former home of Burma's independence leader remains mostly intact and offers a look back at a country that regularly erases its history.

Gen Aung San led the movement to free Burma from its British colonial masters shortly after World War II, and then pushed for democracy. He was assassinated months before the country's 1948 independence. His daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, who would follow in her martyred father's pro-democracy footsteps, was just 2 years old.

Suu Kyi has become an international symbol of Burma, but it's hard to find much evidence of her in Rangoon today. The ruling Burmese military junta has held the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate under tight house arrest for 10 of the last 16 years. With Suu Kyi's house a prison rather than a museum, tourists hoping to learn more about her famous family head to her father's home.

Driven by the same curiosity, I hiked up a steep, long driveway, glancing nervously at gun-toting military guards who constantly seemed ready to reprimand me but never did.

Faded black-and-white family photos line cracked walls. Though there were only five other visitors exploring the house, we all managed to bottleneck around photos of baby Suu Kyi.

The house is filled with original carved-wood furniture, including the bed that Aung San shared with his wife Khin Kyi. Smudged glass covers the general's bookcase holding several English-language works, including Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations .

A guide walks across the creaky wooden floor to point out the small lake outside where Suu Kyi's older brother drowned at age 8, another entry in the family's long list of tragedies.

Nearby, in the same upper-class neighbourhood, I stumbled across the curiously compelling Myanmar [Burma] Motion Picture Museum.

It's clear few people come to this state-run museum. My visit left footprints on the dust-covered floors, cobwebs connected various pieces of archaic film equipment and the ceiling fans were switched on just for me.

Few labels on the photos, sets and artefacts are translated into English, and there are no English-speaking guides or brochures. Still, the young woman who collected the entrance fee ceremoniously handed me a printed receipt reading, "Heartiest Welcome. Deeply grateful for your keen interest."

The museum displays an English-language newspaper article describing the country's first silent film, Love and Liquor, screened in Rangoon in 1920. Several production houses opened in the 1930s, and by the 1940s—the heyday of Burmese cinema—hundreds of films were released, some even translated and exported. But the film industry declined as the military took control in the early 1960s.

Today, the junta heavily controls the industry, and plots are pro-military or politically neutral. Though the films are low-budget, crowds outside downtown Rangoon 's row of movie theatres show that films remain popular.

The museum displays photos of what seems like every winner of the country's equivalent of the Oscar clutching their gold statuettes. Spooky, life-size cutouts of movie characters lurk behind models of film sets. Film clips are shown on old TV sets.

To explore an export sector better known than Burmese films, check out the Myanmar Gems Museum. The impoverished country is rich in natural resources, its gem and mineral trade generating millions for the military government.

Exhibits include a foot-tall jade golfer swinging at a pearl ball and large piles of rough rubies in countless shades of reds and pinks. The museum boasts the world's largest sapphire—63,000 carats—resting next to mundane hunks of asbestos and iron ore.

The gems are displayed in ornately carved cases of teak, another of Burma's prized natural resources.

Although the other two museum visitors breezed right past it, I was drawn to a large map of the country with hundreds of tiny coloured lights marking the locations of mines. When you press the button marked "rubies," red lights illuminate across the north. "Diamond" switches on bright white lights.

The map offers a probably unintended political lesson. It's hard to miss that many of the country's most precious stones are found in the northern Shan and Kachin states, where the military government has been brutally fighting ethnic separatist groups for decades.

Gazing at a dining table set with jade plates and bowls, it's jarring to think about the harsh conditions and exploitation that human rights groups say are faced by Burmese miners.

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