Once little more than a humble shack, Aki Ra’s Land Mine Museum has been reincarnated into the Cambodia Land Mine Museum & Relief Facility.
It is a registered Canadian-based organisation and opened in April 2007 with the aim of building and developing the original museum’s vision.
The new centre includes an expanded museum, a dormitory residence for up to 30 amputee children and a school.
About Aki Ra
Aki Ra is an extraordinary product of Cambodia’s brutal past. Born in the early 1970s, his first memories are of slaving in the rice fields under the Khmer Rouge. Like nearly two million others, Aki Ra’s parents both perished at the hands of the communist regime.
At the age of 10, Khmer Rouge soldiers handed Aki Ra his first weapon, an AK-47 as tall as he was, and began teaching him to lay landmines.
Only months later, after a pitched battle with Vietnamese forces near Siem Reap, Aki Ra was captured and taken prisoner. Now a conscript in the Vietnamese army, he was again forced to put mines in the ground, this time fighting against the Khmer Rouge.
When Vietnamese troops left Cambodia in 1989, Aki Ra was conscripted yet once more, this time by the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, who continued to use his skills in the battle against remaining Khmer Rouge forces.
Aki Ra stayed with the army until the mid-1990s, when the United Nations arrived in Siem Reap. He joined the U.N. demining teams soon after, and for the first time in his life, Aki Ra began removing land mines from Cambodian soil, not laying them.
A Uneasy Peace
Working for the U.N., Aki Ra learned to use metal detectors and other tools of the demining trade, as well as English and Japanese. But by the late 1990s, with the Khmer Rouge defeated and a shaky peace finally taking hold, the U.N. also left Cambodia.
Undeterred, Aki Ra continued to pull landmines from the playgrounds and farmlands surrounding his home, often using makeshift equipment and foregoing expensive safety gear he could not afford.
In 1998, with a growing collection of landmines and other unexploded ordinance, Aki Ra opened the Cambodian Landmine Museum in Siem Reap. He wanted the world to know about the horrors of Cambodia’s genocide, and the dirty remnants of war that continued to haunt his homeland.
The government questioned the safety of do-it-yourself demining and openly feared that Aki Ra might injure himself or worse. The growing stockpile of weapons quickly filling every available inch of Aki Ra’s house only added to the government’s unease.
So too did the commercial consequences. The government had its own war museum in Siem Reap. As a result, Aki Ra and the government were often at odds.
Over the years Aki Ra has at times tried to get right with the government, applying for this or that permit or license, never to much success. The government, it always seemed, had little use or interest for the lone deminer.
Eventually, Aki Ra officially gave up his wildcat demining days and came in to the government fold. He started an NGO, the Cambodia Landmine Museum and Relief Fund, which overseas the museum’s orphanage and other humanitarian efforts.
At the opening of the new Cambodian Landmine Museum, several prominent government officials and diplomats attended the grand opening party.
But Aki Ra’s work is far from done. Stuart Cochlin, a volunteer architect, is helping Aki Ra expand the new center. “The museum is already opened, but we are still finishing the rest of the complex,” says Cochlin. “There will be a school, a clinic, dormitories, and a shower block for the kids. There will be a house for Aki Ra and his family, and dormitories for the volunteer teachers.”
Currently, the nearest primary school is seven kilometers away, the high school even further. Seven kilometers is a long distance for anyone to walk, but it’s particularly difficult for a child who is missing a leg.
The creation of the Relief Fund also officially separates Aki Ra’s demining activities from the museum’s humanitarian work.
“This is a real, legal NGO, with transparency and proper licensing and papers,” explains Cochlin. “Now that we have the NGO, all of Aki Ra’s demining efforts are his private affair, outside of the NGO. We have nothing to do with that.”
As for Aki Ra’s obsession for clearing his country of landmines, the government now appears eager to have his skills and dedication, and it is likely that Aki Ra will once again join the Cambodian armed forces, this time as the country’s chief demining technician.
Where to find the Landmine Museum
The new site, located in a rural area about 15 kilometers from Siem Reap, is highly visible to tourists.
It sits on the route to the 10th century temple of Banteay Srei and several other ruins that make up the World Heritage site of the Angkor Wat Archeological Park.
The museum features displays of Ra’s incredible collection of mine shells and bomb casings along with archives chronicling the rise and fall of the Khmer Rouge and the genocidal horrors of Cambodia’s infamous “Killing Fields.
The complex includes children’s dormitories, a school and library and even a clinic to assist land mine victims.