At Myanmar military's monument to itself, tributes to a dictator

A couple sit in front of a fountain at a military museum in Naypyitaw September 20, 2012. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

NAYPYITAW, Myanmar (Reuters) - Colossal and largely deserted, the Defense Services Museum is a lavish monument to Myanmar’s military blasted from the hills of the nation’s capital, Naypyitaw.

The museum overlooks an enormous fountain so expensive to run it is only switched on for VIP visits. The building is so gargantuan not even Southeast Asia’s second-largest standing army can find enough exhibits to fill it, or summon enough electricity for lights and air-conditioning.

But its empty hallways and soaring exhibition rooms offer a glimpse into how the Tatmadaw, or “Royal Force”, wants to be regarded in reform-era Myanmar.

One of the museum’s biggest sections dedicates 11 panels to “Achievements of the Tatmadaw.” Photographs and paintings show the construction of bridges, ferries, buildings, hydro-dams, paved roads, satellite towers and oil rigs. Uniformed soldiers lay railway tracks. Generals inspect fields.

Several panels trumpet military assistance after Cyclone Nargis killed at least 130,000 people in May 2008. That relief effort, however, wasn’t the military’s finest hour. Critics say it failed to adequately warn people of the impending catastrophe, which potentially could have saved lives. When government aid was slow to arrive, the international community considered invoking the U.N.’s “responsibility to protect” principle to provide humanitarian relief by force. When a grassroots movement stepped in and began delivering aid to the needy, the junta jailed many of the volunteers.

Opened in March 2012, just two weeks before a landslide by-election victory by pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party, the museum is also a tribute to former dictator Than Shwe. He has disappeared from public life amid rumors of serious illness, but appears in photos throughout the museum.

His portrait is prominently displayed in the entrance hall beside those of two dead generals: independence hero Aung San, Suu Kyi’s father and the founder of the Myanmar army; and Ne Win, who seized power in 1962 but died under a house arrest ordered by Than Shwe.

The former junta governed opaquely, and secrecy surrounds it still.

Asked about media reports that Than Shwe is sick or even dead, Deputy Defense Minister Aung Thaw shrugged. “My answer is: I really don’t know.” (Reporting by Andrew Marshall and Jason Szep; Editing by Bill Tarrant)