Authorities Move to Shut Down Siem Reap Land-Mine Museum
siem reap town – In a country where moto drivers regularly greet tourists with a cheery, “You want go killing field?” the idea of a land mine museum doesn’t seem so outlandish.
But the spot Aki Ra chose for his museum—at his home off the main road to Angkor Wat—may have set him on a collision course with provincial officials.
Now the signs along that road alerting temple-bound tourists to the Land Mine Museum are gone, and Aki Ra’s museum is all but deserted.
“I used to get between 50 and 100 visitors a day,’’ he said last week. “Now I get maybe four or five a day.’’
He says officials have shut him down because they don’t want skittish tourists reminded of the millions of land mines still buried in Cambodian soil.
He says the officials told him they had gone to a lot of trouble and expense to demine the areas around Angkor Wat, and the last thing they want to see is signs urging tourists to visit the Land Mine Museum.
He says Chap Nhalivuth, governor of Siem Reap Province, visited the museum a few months ago and peppered him with questions.
“He asked why I put a banner on the road to Angkor Wat, and said that was no good. He said tourists will be afraid and run away.’’
Aki Ra dismissed that argument as ridiculous. The whole world knows Cambodia was heavily mined during its wars, he said, and his museum serves a valuable educational purpose.
The governor could not be reached for comment. But Pech Sokhen, third deputy governor, said Aki Ra was shut down because “he had live weapons and ammunition out there, and we have worked hard to disarm the people.’’
Police said that when they inspected the premises, they found working guns, live mines and ammunition locked in a storage area.
“He had more than 1,000 bullets out there, enough for a coup d’etat,” said Cheang Sokhom, deputy commander of the military police unit that arrested Aki Ra in August and charged him with illegal-weapons possession.
Although police do not believe Aki Ra was planning a coup d’etat or selling guns, and the live material was kept locked away from tourists, Cheang Sokhom said, “The problem is, he didn’t make them safe.’’
Local representatives of two major demining agencies—the Cambodian Mine Action Center and the Halo Trust—said in theory a land-mine museum could be a help. But they agreed with authorities that Aki Ra’s museum is a potential menace to tourists.
Mean Sarun, co-director of CMAC’s Siem Reap branch, said private war museums “are not a good idea.”
Owners, eager to drum up business, will scavenge for dangerous material to make more exciting displays for visitors, he said.
“If we had a 100-percent guarantee that [Aki Ra’s] museum is safe, there would be no problem,” he said.
Aki Ra said the live explosives were being stored until he could transport them to the Japanese Demining Authority, an NGO he works with in Banteay Meanchey.
So Vat, a prosecutor at Siem Reap district court, said Aki Ra’s employer at JDA has written to the court on his behalf, confirming his account.
Although Aki Ra does not charge admission, he does accept donations from visitors, who were flocking to the museum in growing numbers before his arrest.
Young Western tourists in particular found the display compelling, including the graphic paintings by Aki Ra depicting atrocities he had witnessed. At least one tourist guide suggests a trip to the museum as a remedy for temple burn-out.
Siem Reap tourism officials also think the land mind museum is a good idea. “We would like to praise Aki Ra for creating such a museum,’’ said Van Narun, spokesman for the Siem Reap Tourist Office.
He said tourists might extend their stay in Siem Reap to take in the museum after seeing the temples. “It is no problem, this museum. I used to send tourists to that place.
“They gave donations. This is very good.’’
Aki Ra has worked for years as a tour guide and deminer after spending most of his youth planting mines for several different armies. Orphaned because of the Khmer Rouge, the 27-year-old grew up in the chaos of Cambodia’s civil wars, conscripted at different times by the Khmer Rouge, the Vietnamese, and government forces.
As peace returned to the Siem Reap area, he turned to demining. Eventually he began to think about opening a land-mine museum, and started to collect old weapons, ammunition and mines.
Visitors to the museum can view a large assortment of guns, grenades and mines, from the US-made Claymore to small homemade devices popular with the Khmer Rouge.
A number of deactivated mines and other explosives are set up in an interactive display in the garden outside the museum. Visitors can see what mines look like and how they are used in the field.
Aki Ra’s case is scheduled to go to trial in about a month.