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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Renovated landmine museum reopens

Renovated landmine museum reopens

Renovated landmine museum reopens

The well-attended opening of Siem Reap's relocated and redesigned Cambodian

Landmine Museum on April 21was recognition - at last - for the work of Akira, a

controversial de-mining activist who has played a significant role in raising

UXO awareness in Cambodia and abroad.

Akira, a former child soldier

trained by Khmer Rouge cadre, spent a decade fighting in his war torn homeland.

He later used his knowledge of artillery and weapons to defuse mines and

unexploded ordnance (UXO) for UNTAC - and then continued to demine areas

independently, claiming to receive no financial gain.

The collection of

defused weaponry Akira amassed over the years opened for public viewing in

1998-in a set of open dirt-floored shacks near the Angkor Wat temple complex

that doubled as his home.

The modern design of the new museum stands in

contrast to the original site and displays a selection of what Akira, now in his

early 30s, has located and defused over the past decades. It has been estimated

that he has individually cleared more than 50,000 landmines from Cambodian

soil.

"That's a very conservative estimate," said Richard Fitoussi,

international project manager of the Cambodian Landmine Museum Relief Fund

(CLMMRF). "I have been with him clearing mines when he has cleared 150 in one

day."

Akira's museum and his demining activities, for which he famously

uses only basic equipment and limited protective gear, have created much debate.

The controversy intensified after a law was passed in June 2005 making it

illegal for any unlicensed group or individual to handle mines or UXOs, or to

stock any explosives or weapons in any location.

Bou Seng Hourt, Akira's

wife and the administrative director of CLMMRF, told the Post they had had many

problems with police who had attempted to close the old museum and stop them

from clearing mines.

"But we will not stop until the land mines are

finished," she said. "We always dreamed of this."

Hourt said the areas

the couple cleared of mines were poverty stricken, with people forced to work

the land in order to survive.

A report on informal village demining

prepared by Handicap International stated that the government's plan for formal

demining prioritizes areas for "development and for the creation/protection of

infrastructure."

This categorizes areas of private farming land as

either low or no priority, forcing villages to either clear mines themselves or

to request the help of unlicensed deminers like Akira.

Sam Sotha,

director of Cambodian Mine Action and Victims Assistance Committee (CMA), said

he had no knowledge of Akira's demining activities but said CMA was concerned

that Akira kept mines and old weapons in his home.

"For the new museum we

have sent our team to monitor and check everything on display so there is no

more threat," Sotha said. "It's now under control."

Sotha told the Post

that Akira had requested a demining license for himself and a team of nine,

which is now being processed.

"I think it will be easy for him to get

approval as he has already trained and mastered the knowledge of demining,"

Sotha said.

The new museum is the culmination of a long-held vision.

Fitoussi, a Canadian photojournalist, first met Akira in 2000 when he came to

photograph him clearing mines.

"He told me, 'I want to have a real

museum. I want the world to know what landmines do and that we should stop using

them,'" Fitoussi said. "I told him I'd get him his museum, but at the time I

didn't know how."

On return to Canada, Fitoussi started the CLMMRF and

began fund raising. He hoped the museum would become a beacon for international

landmine awareness.

The CLMMRF plan to continue their present landmine

relief initiatives and expand into outreach programs working together with other

relief organizations.

The museum is not only home to the couples' two

children but also their extended family of 23 young landmine victims who receive

education and rehabilitation through the foundation.

Hourt said while the

old museum had a rustic charm, it was located in a seedy area of town surrounded

by karaoke parlors, which was bad for the children,

"They would see many

people do bad things and these people would try to get the children involved,"

she said.

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