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
"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
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
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.
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,"
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
The CLMMRF plan to continue their present landmine
relief initiatives and expand into outreach programs working together with other
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,"