Paintings in the Landmines Museum depict Aki Ra's experiences of war.
he wooden sign on the route between Siem Reap and Angkor Wat enticing tourists to
veer off onto a dirt road and visit Cambodia's first land-mines museum is gone.
But the two years in which the museum became a popular tourist attraction, highlighted
in guidebooks and written up in the international press, means that many moto-drivers
still know the way.
Tourists alighting from their motos on one recent blistering Sunday afternoon were
perplexed to see the sign, "This museum has been sadly closed".
However, the gate to the modest compound was open, and the elaborate display of mines,
photos and paintings of war and a mock minefield garden were still there for the
looking. A piece of torn notepaper, taped to the chest of a dummy Vietnamese soldier,
offered a detailed explanation of the closure, and a plea for help.
"ATTENTION. Sorry everybody. Today, February 26, we must close the Landmine
Museum. This is because the Cambodian police and military do not like the museum.
If they see tourists visiting the museum, they will make trouble. If you or your
friends wish to visit, please tell police/military that you have come to visit me,
Mr Aki Ra, not the museum. Ask why the museum is closed, ask what problems it caused.
Say you read of it in international publications. And please write letters of protest
to Prime Minister Hun Sen asking him to stop this persecution. Thank you!"
On a nearby table sits a thick pile of sheets filled with dozens of signatures -
a petition by visitors to allow the museum to reopen. A guest book lay open at a
page that included the comments, "most moving museum I have been to", and
"It is impossible to look into the future unless we are able to look at the
past. The function fulfilled by this museum is vital, and it should be reopened immediately."
A third visitor scrawled, "I am amazed by the courage of one person who has
changed his life so dramatically."
That one person is Aki Ra, a young man ("I was born in 1972 or 1973, I'm not
sure") who says he was orphaned during the Khmer Rouge reign in the late 1970s.
Drafted as a child soldier first for the Khmer Rouge and then for the Vietnamese-backed
Cambodian government, Aki Ra, after more than a decade of fighting, said he decided
it was time to dig up mines where he once had laid them, and make people aware of
the long-term damage that war can do. The land mines museum was his brainchild; his
creation. It is now the center of a controversy that has become his headache.
On January 19, Aki Ra was brought before the Siem Reap provincial court and given
a one-year suspended sentence for illegal possession of weapons.
It was over in less than a morning, says Aki Ra's lawyer Tep Sovann, with the judge
leaving the chambers for about half an hour to consider the case, and coming back
with a typed decision that was "several pages long." If Aki Ra is found
guilty of another offense within the next five years, he will have to serve the original
sentence, plus any new one.
In February, the Siem Reap provincial government ordered the museum closed.
These are some of the few clear facts in a deeply contentious case. To hear Aki Ra
tell it, he is a victim of misunderstanding, injustice and greed. His detractors
- including Siem Reap Governor Chap Nhalyvoud and Siem Reap's Military Police Commander
Morn Samon - say that it is Aki Ra who is greedy, and that his museum is dangerous
The scourge of the Cambodian countryside is now the centre of controversy in Siem Reap.
Aki Ra's story is this. After working for three years as a deminer, he got all necessary
permission to open his land mines museum in September, 1999, and all went smoothly
until last October.
At that point, he said, a "big man" in the province - he declined to say
who - pressured him to go into a joint venture, to start a bigger war museum that
would charge an entrance fee. The offer, he said, was that he would contribute all
the ordinance in his museum, and in return would get 40 per cent of the profits from
the new museum.
"I didn't want to do it that way," he said. "I wanted to keep it small,
with the donations from visitors going to the demining I do, or going back into the
museum. Anyway, I already had a museum license - and they wanted to have the license
be just in their name. So I said no."
Soon after, his troubles started, he said. Military police came by to inspect and
later to confiscate some of the weapons he had on display. He said he tried to placate
them, but they kept coming back.
Eventually he heard that Siem Reap Military Police Commander Morn Soman had applied
for permission to open his own military museum, where an admission fee would be charged.
Aki Ra then found himself in court. Aki Ra said that after he received his suspended
sentence, Investigating Judge Ang Mealdei warned him privately that if he continued
to talk to journalists or tourists, he would go to prison.
"He said that if anyone asked me why the museum was closed, I should just tell
them that I had done a bad thing," Aki Ra said. Ang Mealdei denies having said
Aki Ra was charged and convicted under Article 54 of the UNTAC provisional criminal
code, which states: "Anyone carrying or transporting guns, ammunition or weapons
without permission, according to conditions fixed by UNTAC, must be charged with
carrying or transporting weapons illegally and must be sentenced to three to six
years in prison."
The fact that Aki Ra had originally obtained permission from then-Siem Reap Governor
Toan Chhay and from other relevant departments matters little to Col Morn Soman,
who says Toan Chhay had no right to grant that permission.
"Do you really think a provincial governor has the right to give this kind of
permission? Could this happen in your country?," Soman asked a visiting American
journalist. Assured that US states had the right to grant licenses for private museums,
he waved a hand in dismissive disgust.
"Well, it's pointless to compare Cambodia with the US. Here, only the Ministry
of Defense can approve a museum showing military equipment, and only the military
can run it."
Actually, says Tep Sovann, the Legal Aid Cambodia (LAC) lawyer who defended Aki Ra
in court, there is no law stating who can run a land mines museum, or who can grant
permission for it.
"The law doesn't say anything about who can run this kind of exhibition, because
this is the first of its kind in the country," Tep Sovann said. "That's
part of the problem. There's no precedent, so it's hard to know how to handle this."
Col Morn Samon says he doesn't think a land mines museum is a bad idea, but that
Aki Ra hasn't done it correctly.
"I don't have a hard heart. I just enforce the law," Samon said. "The
court and the province have told me to see if the museum is still open, and if it
is, to close it. But then I'll be accused of doing this so I can open my own museum.
And I actually think there's room for both museums. Ours will be of heavy weapons
and tanks. Aki Ra can still have his, with land mines. I just want him to do this
Orphaned under the Khmer Rouge and dragooned into the govern-ment army, Aki Ra is now fighting his own battle.
Samon waved three letters of permission, which he sought and received from the Ministry
of Defense, the Office of the High Command, and the Commander of the Armed Forces.
"If Aki Ra wants to have a museum with military equipment, he needs letters
like these," he said. "And if he gets them, he's welcome to run his museum.
I'll even protect him."
Samon claims that Aki Ra broke the law not only by operating his museum without proper
permission, but also by selling weapons and ordinance from the museum. Aki Ra flatly
Plang Chhlan, President of Siem Reap's court and the presiding judge in Aki Ra's
case, calls the charge "an accusation without evidence" which was not part
of the official court case. That case, he says, revolved solely around whether Aki
Ra had been in illegal possession of usable weapons. And even there, Plang Chhlan
says, the evidence was not conclusive.
"Because Aki Ra had originally received permission from every relevant authority,
including the Siem Reap governor at that time, and because he had no intention to
do anything dangerous with these weapons, I gave him only a suspended sentence,"
Plang Chhlan said.
What his court did not do, Plang Chhlan emphasised, was order the museum closed.
That decision came directly from Siem Reap Gov Chap Nhalyvoud and his deputies. The
Governor says the museum will remain closed unless Aki Ra gets the Ministry of Defense's
stamp of approval to reopen it.
"Aki Ra had permission to display land mines, just land mines that had been
inspected by [the demining agency] CMAC to make sure they were safe," Chap Nhalyvoud
"But then he started collecting other weapons - including guns and bullets that
could still be used. And he started to sell things. Military uniforms, uniforms of
police and so on. That's illegal!"
This disabled tank beside the main road at Anlong Veng was recently towed to Siem Reap for future display in a new military museum.
Aki Ra denied that the weapons on display at his museum were still usable.
"The weapons had already been steamrolled by the government army, and the barrels
of the guns weren't even straight any more," he said. "As for the uniforms
- yes, I bought some in the Siem Reap market and offered them for tourists who wanted
to buy them. If it's illegal to sell them, why are they being sold openly in the
Chap Nhal-yvoud says it isn't just safety and protocol that concern him about the
land mines museum. He also worries about Siem Reap's image.
"We don't want to show tourists that we have land mines, that we have problems
with war or with the Khmer Rouge," he said.
"We did have these problems in the past, but now we do not have any more war.
We do not have any more killing fields. So should we be showing mines or pictures
of the Khmer Rouge to tourists? No. That is not our wish."
The Governor became especially agitated when recounting an image he saw during his
own visit to the museum.
"There was an old Khmer Rouge flag, with a picture of Pol Pot, and a red landmines
sign with skull and crossbones. This is against the law. You cannot show some flag
that belongs to the past, with a very bad image to shock people, if you don't have
In response to a suggestion that such freedom of expression is protected by Cambodia's
constitution, Chap Nhalyvoud broke in impatiently.
"Now we practice democracy, liberal, right?," Nhalyvoud said.
"But we have also had a lot of problems with the Khmer Rouge.
"So you cannot just put some flag, some sign that brings back bad memories.
Safety concerns over exhibits
If the heart of Governor Chap Nhalyvoud's concerns over Aki Ra's Landmines Museum
is the message such a museum sends to visitors, demining agencies CMAC and Halo Trust
say they worry more about the safety of mines on display, Aki Ra's disregard for
proper safety equipment when doing freelance demining in former front-line villages,
and what they say is a lack of financial transparency in the way the museum is run.
Col Jean Pierre Billault, the Co-Director of CMAC in Siem Reap, was Aki Ra's demining
supervisor some six years ago.
"He was a good deminer, and he's not a bad boy," Billault said of his former
protégé. "But I think he realized he could make some money off
this, and is doing it without regard for safety or protocol."
Col Billault says he has confiscated mines with traces of explosive material in them
that he has found in the museum, despite a prominent sign in the museum that says
that all exhibits are "100 percent safe".
Aki Ra says this happened only once, and that the explosive material was too minimal
to have been dangerous. He says he did keep some TNT in storage, which he used in
his demining efforts to blow up mines that were too dangerous to move. The TNT has
since been confiscated by military police, along with semi-automatic rifles and some
of the other weapons that had been on display.
"I think the concept of having a land mines museum is a good one," Col
Billault said. "But I think it must be a national museum, properly supervised,
with the proceeds going to victims of land mines, or to the official demining effort."
Matthew Hovel, program manager of Halo Trust in Cambodia, concurs.
"There is a real need for a mines museum in Cambodia, since land mines are such
a serious problem here," he said. "But we think it should be regulated
by the Cambodian Mine Action Authority, which reports directly to the Prime Minister,
and not by an individual. We're concerned that donations given in good faith by tourists
may not being used as intended."
Despite their suspicions, neither Hovel, Billault, Chap Nhalyvoud nor Morn Samon
offered any evidence that Aki Ra is misusing funds for personal gain.
Entrance to the museum is free, but a donations box sits on the table next to the
guest book, and it is rarely empty. Aki Ra says the money donated goes to maintenance
of the museum, his own demining efforts, and support for five children - some of
them amputees - who live on the grounds of his compound because their families cannot
afford to take care of them.
"I give thousands of [Thai] baht to people in mined areas, to those whohave
been injured, or for ceremonies for those who have been killed by mines," he
said. "And just paying for the trucks and food for the deminers to go out and
work for several days is expensive, too. There's usually not much money left."
A stark reminder of the past at the museum.
Aki Ra says that his main income these days comes from acting as a tour guide around
the Angkor Wat temple complex, capitalizing on his ability to speak English and Japanese.
He says this earns him about $500 a month, sometimes more, and he has put much of
that money back into the museum and his demining efforts. But he says he has suspended
the demining for now so he can stay close to the museum, lest the military police
The future of the land mines museum now hangs in limbo. Judge Plang Chhlan says Aki
Ra has every right to appeal the Siem Reap court's decision, but the usual 60-day
window for appeals is long over.
Aki Ra says he didn't appeal because he has learned the hard way that seeking justice
in Cambodia "is too expensive" and he fears the consequences if he challenges
the system too aggressively.
"The people who want my museum closed have power. They have guns. They have
money," he said.
"In Cambodia, just $300 or $400, and it can be arranged for a robber to come
and kill you at night. I know of cases like that - and I don't want trouble; I just
want to do some thing to help my country. Why do they say that's a bad thing?"
- Mary Kay Magistad, former National Public Radio (USA) correspondent in Southeast
Asia and China, has covered Cambodia over the past 13 years. She is writing a book
on the social legacy of the Khmer Rouge era.