Siem reap province – While soaking up the serenity and architectural marvels of Angkor Wat, it’s almost possible to forget that Cambodia experienced decades of warfare and the Khmer Rouge genocide.
But those are just the memory lapses that Aki Ra, proprietor of the Landmine Museum in Siem Reap province, wants to ensure never happen.
Set just off of the road on the way to the Angkor Archaeological Park, the Landmine Museum gives the 50 to 100 visitors who visit each day a glimpse of the deadly legacy of Cambodia’s armed conflict.
On display are defused land mines, an array of weaponry, literature about mines and Cambodian history. There is also information about Aki Ra’s own life—a fascinating personal history that mirrors the travails of modern-day Cambodia.
Starting when he was 5 years old, just after both of his parents were killed, Aki Ra says he was conscripted first by the Khmer Rouge and then by the Vietnamese army who forced him to fight against his former comrades.
When the UN arrived in the early 1990s, Aki Ra was put to work as a deminer.
Today, Aki Ra—who is in his early 30s—and a team of volunteers go out for about five days each month to clear mines and train other deminers.
He does not have a license to carry out official demining work, he said, because local officials won’t give him one. However, he still volunteers for the work and what he demines he puts on show for visitors to his museum.
“I know about mines,” he said. “I stay in mines since [I was] 10 years old.”
Though the museum—which opened in 1997 and operates off donations from visitors—has become a popular tourist spot, Aki Ra’s success has caused him a long and troubled history with local authorities.
Soon after it opened, military police arrested Aki Ra and closed down the museum. Confiscating his display of mines and weaponry, the military police said that such items were dangerous and would scare away tourists, he said.
“But I [knew] it is not true,” he said. “They steal my idea…. They want to open their own museum.”
Shortly after Aki Ra’s arrest, military police officers opened their own War Museum in Siem Reap town—outfitted with material seized from his Landmine Museum—which they still run as a private business.
Though on several occasions over the last few years military police have raided Aki Ra’s museum—confiscating materials, roughing him up and generally being a nuisance—relations have recently improved, thanks to providing them free beer on a monthly basis and occasional telephone cards.
“Cambodia [is] always like this,” he said.
For now, he is trying to focus his energies on voluntary demining and his newly opened Aki Ra Mine Action Gallery in Siem Reap town.
The gallery features a free children’s concert every other evening by some of the 20 youths who live with Aki Ra and his wife, Hourt, at the museum. Each child has each been affected by landmines, and the performances focus on Cambodian history and their own heartbreaking experiences.
“[There are] songs about fighting between the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese and laying landmines, so people know who laid the mines in Cambodia,” Aki Ra said.
In one song, a 15-year-old boy named Chet describes how he lost one of his legs and both parents to a mine in 1999 in Kompong Cham province. After the accident, he moved to Phnom Penh and became a beggar, sniffing glue and stealing, until he was found by Aki Ra in 2003. The song is ultimately one of redemption and finishes with Chet describing how happy he is to be educated and cared for now.
Aki Ra wrote and composed all of the music and dialogue. The gallery, which opened in April, also features artwork about the Khmer Rouge era.
Now, Aki Ra hopes that in the future, the officials who make trouble for him will see the good that he does and stop harassing him. “I hope they will like me in the future,” he said.