Watch your step...
Interview conducted October 2000
Cambodia has a land mine problem. That's hardly news. While more than a few tourists coming to Cambodia are concerned about these mines, the land mines also exist as a curiosity to the traveler. A more accessible opportunity for Siem Reap visitors to learn more about Cambodia's land mine problem came when Mr. Aki Ra opened his land mine museum in late 1998.
[Right: Mr. Aki Ra]
Located midway between the town of Siem Reap and the Angkor Park on a road parallel to the temple access road, Aki Ra's museum has quickly become one of Siem Reap's most popular attractions after the temples themselves. That is, until the local government got in the way.
Aki Ra's history is a remarkable one. Orphaned as a youngster by the Khmer Rouge, he was a child soldier first for the Khmer Rouge in the early 1980s, then with the Vietnamese Army in the second half of that decade, and then with the Cambodian army beginning in 1989. He began clearing and collecting mines in 1995. He works in Siem Reap, Oddar Meanchey, and Banteay Meanchey provinces, with much of his present work in the Poipet area near the Thai border.
The land mine museum used to see fifty to one hundred visitors a day, but in mid-2000 the local government began efforts to shut his museum down. Citing concerns that tourists will be made afraid and therefore not come to Cambodia, they continue to pull down his signs along the road to Angkor Wat, and have harassed him with demands for money and threats of closure.
As Aki Ra told me, "I have problem with Cambodian police and the governor in Siem Reap. They try to stop my land mine museum ... they make trouble with me many times because they think it's bad I open land mine museum. I make the tourists scared. I make tourists afraid ... stop coming to Angkor Wat. (The government) says 'when the tourists go to Angkor Wat they saw my banner 'Land Mine Museum'. (The tourists) say, 'Wow, maybe around Angkor Wat have a lot of mines,' so they want to go back and tell people donít come to Angkor Wat.' No, this isn't true, when I open land mine museum the tourists they look at the banner, they arenít afraid, they want to see ... and I tell them all these mines I helped clear around Angkor Wat, itís finished, itís safe now ... (Angkor Wat) is not dangerous. I want more people to come, I donít want to stop tourists to come to Cambodia ... About two or three times (the government) take my banner, throw away. They try to stop (me)."
Aki Ra has faced harassment over matters of licensing and the storage of arms on the premises. He had a display of weaponry and uniforms, both of which are now removed. He has been accused by the local government of selling arms and also of possibly stockpiling arms for use against the government. All these accusations Aki Ra vehemently denies. Aki Ra tells me, "(The government) said, 'okay, why you open big market to sell many explosives? ... I think itís not museum.' I said 'no, I never open market. I just open museum.' ... And then they said, 'Oh, okay, you have all kind of mines and guns, all can use 100% ... still dangerous ... you donít make it safe.' No, all is safe. It's not dangerous. The guns (are broken). Nothing is inside. The mines, finished."
But the museum is still open. Many defused mines are there and Aki Ra has written many stories of his days in the armies which the visitor can read. Some of these stories and the accompanying pictures he has painted are not for the weak-stomached visitor.
But how bad is the land mine problem? It should be stressed first and foremost that Siem Reap is SAFE. The Angkor Archaeological Park is SAFE. Is it possible that a stray mine or unexploded ordnance (UXO) is lying about in the forest somewhere? Yes, anything is possible but ask yourself as a tourist, are you planning to walk where no person has walked before? Are you planning a long hike, bushwhacking through jungle that hasn't seen a human in twenty years?
According to Aki Ra, there are no land mines within fifty kilometers of Siem Reap. The majority of Cambodia's land mines are along the Thai border in Battambang, Banteay Meanchey, Oddar Meanchey, and Preah Vihear provinces and in the outer reaches of Siem Reap province. Visitors planning expeditions to any of the distant temples (Koh Ker, Preah Khan, etc.) would do well to take a knowledgeable guide, likewise for trips to see the Khmer Rouge history in the Anlong Veng area.
As for how much longer land mines will continue to plague the Cambodian countryside Aki Ra expects twenty, perhaps thirty more years before Cambodia is cleared, or at least cleared to an acceptable level as complete clearance can never be guaranteed.
Contrary to rumors abounding, Aki Ra does not take tourists to observe land mine removal. He had done this a few times, but due to safety concerns he has abandoned this practice.
Have any tourists become land mine victims? I have heard conflicting reports, but according to Aki Ra the answer is, "not yet". However, other Siem Reap residents have told me that a couple of tourists have hit land mines attempting unescorted trips to some of the remote areas in northern Cambodia, but the story was suppressed. True? I can't say one way or the other.
Fortunately, much fewer Cambodians are stepping on land mines now. Figures from the Landmine Monitor Report 2000 as published in the Phnom Penh Post (vol. 9 no. 19, September 15 - 28, 2000) cited 1,019 human casualties in 1999, nearly one-third of the 1996 total of 3,047. The figures did not clarify how many were fatalities and how many were maimed.
But as a tourist, if your visit is limited to the Angkor temples, with no trips further than Banteay Srei, Roluos, or a boat ride on the Tonle Sap you have absolutely nothing to fear. But if you're planning a trip to Anlong Veng, Preah Vihear, or Koh Ker - take a guide and take common sense, but don't let the fear prevent you from seeing the many positive things Cambodia offers.
Phum Chon Pika
Leaving Siem Reap heading towards the temples, as you near the toll gate, look off to your right. What you see is nothing more than a field with low trees and scrub. But tucked out of view is a village of some 400 families whose unifying element is that someone in each family is a land mine victim. This village, called Phum Chon Pika, which literally means 'village of disabled people' is the result of a failed government attempt to move all these people to Banteay Srei district. Instead, they've settled into an area just south of Angkor Wat. During the day, some of the men work, but many more are the beggars and musicians you see around the temples.
Right: 13-year-old Yep Tran lost his left leg to a land mine when he was ten years old working with the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces near Poipet. An orphan, he now lives at the Centre de Developpement Culturel et des Arts Populaires Khmers in Siem Reap. Aside from general education, he is learning English and traditional Khmer music.
Information on land mines is plentiful on the web, but here are some places to start.
Oneworld.net : Land mines
International Campaign to Ban Landmines (excellent links here)
The following individuals have websites of text and/or photographs that all address the land mine problem in Cambodia, in some cases quite graphically: David Portnoy / Hannes Schick / Darren Whiteside / John Griffin / Nic Dunlop
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