siem reap district, Siem Reap – Near the entrance to Aki Ra’s land mine museum in Siem Reap town, a small sign hangs on the wall: “This museum has been sadly closed.”
But a visitor would hardly know. Tourists still mill past piles of defused grenades and bombs and wander through a mock minefield. They read stories of Aki Ra’s life as a young soldier—tales of near misses with death, heroic battles, and people killed by mines and booby traps.
And, most importantly for Aki Ra, they sign their names to petitions urging the provincial government to leave the former child soldier alone and let him run his museum, which was ordered closed in late February.
After months of run-ins with the law, including a court conviction for running his museum without a license and the confiscation of some exhibits, Aki Ra believes he has hit upon a winning strategy—threatening the government with the loss of tourist dollars.
A book at the museum is filled with messages of support from Switzerland, Canada and South Africa. Diny Mills of Singapore writes: “For your courage you deserve a Nobel Peace Prize and support, not criticism.” Tracey Keannery of Ireland tells Aki Ra: “I am saddened to see that the authorities have shut down the museum, but hope this will soon change.”
The petition—with more than 1,000 signatures—urges the provincial governor, the military police and the provincial director of tourism to reconsider the decision to close the museum, which sits just off the road from Siem Reap town to Angkor Wat.
Aki Ra, who laid mines for the Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese forces and later cleared minefields, first ran into trouble when local demining groups found live ordnance at the museum, which opened in mid-1999.
Later, the provincial government took him to court because he did not have the proper permit. Finally, Siem Reap military police confiscated several guns, which they said were still operable, and ordered the museum closed in February. Morn Samon, commander of Siem Reap military police, said Aki Ra had to close the museum because he is now a civilian.
Aki Ra’s response has been a campaign of civil disobedience. He hasn’t packed up his exhibits. Rather, he now suggests to tourists that they tell authorities they are only visiting him, not the museum. A sign urges the museum’s 30 to 50 daily visitors to “ask why the museum is closed and ask about problems it has caused. State that you read of it in the international publications. And please write letters of protest to Prime Minister Hun Sen, asking him to stop this persecution.”
Some people have written letters, and those have landed on the desk of Kou Sum Saroeuth, director of tourism for Siem Reap province. “I received a lot of letters from people asking me to intervene to keep the museum open,” he said. “But I cannot do that. It is the policy of the governor.”
The government has not forced Aki Ra to lock his doors. But the governor has insisted that a sign for the museum, displayed along the road to Angkor Wat, be taken down.
“If we promote for the tourists a mine museum, maybe it will make the tourists afraid,” Kou Sum Saroeuth said.
Suy San, second deputy governor of Siem Reap, said the idea of the museum is not so bad. But he said it should be moved further from the area zoned for the Angkor Archeological Park and that Aki Ra should apply to the Ministry of Defense for a permit. “Only the military can decide what kind of landmines or weapons can or can’t be displayed,” he said.
Tea Banh, co-minister of defense, said the ministry will not issue a permit to Aki Ra. “It is impossible because it could frighten the tourists,” he said.
Morn Samon has said the military police already have permission from the Ministry of Defense to open a weapons museum of their own, which he said would be bigger and better than Aki Ra’s exhibit.
Aki Ra isn’t so sure. “If I am bad for Cambodia, I think they are worse,” he said. “They have bigger things, like tanks.”
But Aki Ra said he will even help the military police put their museum together if he is allowed to stay open.