The Land Mine Museum, Siem Reap, Cambodia
By Susan Miles
Siem Reap, Cambodia; “Welcome to the Land Mines Museum” reads the sign. Here, off a bumpy, dusty, unsealed road, a few short kilometres from the World Heritage ruins of Angkor Wat and the construction boom of luxury hotels in the city of Siem Reap, the past, present and sadly future of landmines in Cambodia is on display.
The Land Mine Museum, opened in 1999, consists of a simple corrugated iron building. Its director, the quiet and unassuming Mr Aki Ra is a former child soldier of the Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese armies. Aki Ra, along with his fellow conscripts were forced to lay the anti-personal devices that covered Cambodia. As an adult, he worked with the United Nations in the early 1990’s to detect and clear the mines that until only 10 years ago, surrounded the now tourist packed grounds of Angkor Wat.
This clearing exercise is far from complete as it is estimated that 6 million mines remain in the soil of Cambodia. These uncleared mine fields are primarily located along the Thai/Cambodian border, and it is here that Aki Ra regularly journeys to continue this dangerous work.
Killed by Land Mines
Local villages are still regularly maimed or killed by landmines that come with “manufactured in” labels reading China, Russia, US, Vietnam and Germany and date stamps from the 1940’s to the 1970’s. The devices have proven to be remarkably resilient, remaining in active condition many decades after they were first placed in the ground.
When Aki Ra moved to the region in the late 1990’s, it was an isolated and lonely rural landscape. The local village of 500 that has grown up around the museum is a testament to Aki Ra’s efforts in not only clearing the mines, but in educating his neighbors on mine awareness, safety and first aid.
Despite its simple structure, the museum is a total success in its aim to raise awareness of the devastating affects of anti-personal devices. As first Aki Ra and then an English volunteer leads us through the museum displays, the sickening variety of ways to maim or kill with these devises becomes more apparent. In the manufacture, design and placement of landmines, we humans have thought of everything.
From the technique of laying mines in water, causing increased damage to the body by the imploding water, to the lightweight plastic construction of later models that are both cheaper and easier to carry. The Claymore mines that are designed to spray ball bearings in a specific direction coming conveniently labeled with the instruction “Front facing enemy”. Most of the mines have been designed to destroy a specific bodypart rather than to kill. This strategy to construction ensures a more effective strike against the enemy, an injured soldier is a greater burden than a dead one.
If visitors doubt the impact of the mines on display, the human reminder is ever present by the handful of child amputee victims that live at the museum. A very practical program has been put in place to provide these children with much needed assistance. The museum supports them to go to the local school as well as providing them with English/Japanese lessons courtesy of the international volunteers.
While the museum can house and care for 8 to 9 kids at a time, the regular rotation of students back to their farms and families ensures as many as possible can be saved from a life of street beggars.
Upon meeting Aki Ra and learning of both his horrendous wartime experiences (depicted in both story and paintings throughout the museum) and his continuing dangerous mine clearing activities, you are left in no doubt how remarkable this young man really is.
Having lost his parents during the dark days of the Khmer Rouge rule, it is amazing that he survived the starvation, cruelty and danger that engulfed Cambodia during this era. His current land mine clearing activities defy belief.
Several times a month, for up to 5 days at a time, he works without sophisticated detection or safety equipment, usually solo, clearing mines on the Thai/Cambodia border. Using nothing more than his foot and a stick, he locates and then detonates by hand up to 30 mines per day.
It would be usual to associate museums with the preservation and recording of significant historical events. What sets the Land Mine Museum apart is that the displays are, (& there is no other word for it) “fresh”!.
The Land Mine Museum is located 4km south of Ankor Wat and 2km South of
Read more about Cambodia and museums
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