None of the estimated 3 million land mines in Cambodia were
designed or manufactured by Cambodians. Removing them is a slow and
dangerous process that could take as long as 100 years, but Aki Ra
is doing his part by personally clearing fields and curating The
Land Mine Museum outside Angkor Wat.
Ra, 29, has worked with land mines for most of his life. After the
Khmer Rouge killed his parents, the 5-year-old orphan was
conscripted into the army and taught to fire guns, launch rockets,
make bombs, and lay mines. At 13, he saw People’s Republic of
Vietnam soldiers take his village and was given the choice of
joining them or being killed. Ra fought with the Vietnamese until
they withdrew from Cambodia in 1990. Then he joined the Cambodian
army, which was still fighting the ruling Khmer Rouge.
According to Ra, there are 27,000 victims of land mines in Siem
Reap province alone. Fortunately, the number of Cambodians being
injured by land mines has begun to decrease: There were 1,019
casualties in 1999, compared to 3,047 in 1996.
‘I was very lucky during all my time spent with the various
different armies and had many lucky escapes,’ Ra writes in the
museum’s photocopied guidebook. The museum is a large hut filled
with hundreds of mines that Ra has personally disarmed and pulled
from the land. Along the walls, specific devices are described,
their uses explained, and country of origin listed (most were
planted by the United States, the former Soviet Union, or China).
The museum also features paintings of battles that Ra has created
A small ‘mock minefield’ next to the museum demonstrates how land
mines were used. Although the weaponry is inactive, seeing bombs
hanging from trees with trip wires attached, waiting for someone to
come walking by, is spooky. One of the orphans Ra has taken under
his wing, a 15-year-old land mine victim with one leg, shows me how
the mines were packed with explosives and how the small detonator
was implanted. He invites me to step on a mine, which I do. It
feels very creepy.
The museum had 50 to 100 visitors daily before the local government
began efforts to shut it down a few years ago, Ra says. Concerned
that Ra’s museum would discourage tourism, the authorities have
demanded money, threatened closure, and pulled down the museum’s
signs along the road to Angkor Wat. They have also harassed
maverick curator Ra about the licensing and storage of arms on the
premises, leading to the removal of weaponry and uniform displays.
Ra has even been accused of selling arms and stockpiling weapons
for use against the government.
Despite the harassment, Ra’s museum continues to attract visitors
who still find their way along the dirt road to his compound. ‘I
want more people to come,’ he says.
From Giant Robot (#25), an Asian pop culture magazine
that covers everything from martial arts films and anime to Asian
candy and soft drink taste tests. Subscriptions: $15/yr. (4 issues)
from Box 642053, Los Angeles, CA 90064.