A person with a passing knowledge of battlefields might think dodging mines, bombs and bullets was mainly a matter of keeping your head down and staying put. Aki Ra, a former child soldier with Cambodia's bloody Khmer Rouge, has a much broader acquaintance with the infinite variety of explosive killing devices. Take the booby-trapped cigarette, a favorite weapon of Aki Ra's former communist masters. A cigarette is fitted with a hidden explosive and left invitingly on the jungle floor. When the would-be victim lights up, the first few puffs are normal. But when the bottom half of the cigarette becomes hot, a detonator explodes, and a tiny ball bearing is fired through the smoker's face.
Aki Ra is obsessed with such deadly devices, a passion he wants to share with the world. And that explains his Land Mine Museum and Information Center in Siem Reap, not far from the famed temple complex of Angkor Wat. Museum is a bit of a stretch: it's a series of wooden shacks on a humble, dirt road, but Aki Ra has collected a truly macabre collection of mines, bombs and booby traps. "I have Russian POMZ-2Ms," he says, "Vietnamese pineapple mines, American Claymores, Bulgarian POMZ-2s, everything!" Aki Ra tenderly holds aloft an American-made Bouncing Betty and lovingly describes its twin set of charges: one propels the mine a meter into the air, while the other sends out red-hot shrapnel at waist height, slicing in half everyone within a 20-m radius. "I made this museum to teach Cambodians and foreigners about the land mine problem here," he says. And that's not such a bad mission. War ordnance kill or maim more than 100 people in Cambodia every month.
Though only 28, Aki Ra has spent most of his life around munitions. In 1978 when he was five, the Khmer Rouge executed his parents and trained him to lay mines, fire guns and rocket launchers and to make an array of simple but lethal bombs. "The Khmer Rouge soldiers had a huge pile of guns and would let us choose which ones we wanted to use: AK47s, M16s, M60s," Aki Ra writes in a sort of memoir that he sells at the museum for $3. "Also, I could choose rocket launchers, mortars and bazookas."
The Vietnam-ese, who invaded Cambodia in 1978, recruited the young veteran after the Khmer Rouge fled to the hills. Following the 1991 Paris peace agreement, Aki Ra transformed himself again and went to work for the United Nations peacekeeping force. His chore: digging up the mines he had so liberally scattered. "It feels much better to remove the mines than to lay them," he says.
Almost daily Aki Ra climbs aboard his old motorcycle and scours the countryside for unexploded ordnance. According to some estimates, as many as 10 million mines and unexploded bombs—leftovers from the Vietnam War, American carpet bombing and decades of civil conflict involving the Khmer Rouge, the government and Vietnamese invaders—still litter the Cambodian landscape. It's a gargantuan task: Aki Ra devotes hours to helping farmers clear their fields of the deadly detritus of three decades of fighting, which he deactivates, stores and catalogs at his museum.
Amid a garden of shrubs, ferns and flowers, visitors can now stroll around and probe at mines with sticks and fingers to get the taste of a real war zone. That's not the kind of display favored by govern-ment authorities, keen to shed Cambodia's war-time stigma and attract more tourists. In addition, many of the current crop of leaders, from the Prime Minister on down, are former members of the Khmer Rouge, and the past is often seen as something best left buried. As a consequence, police have removed much of Aki Ra's collection and are continuing a campaign of harassment. In January, Aki Ra was given a one-year suspended jail sentence for violating his museum license by displaying "inappropriate" materials. "The military police found that he possessed a lot of live ordnance and work-able guns and uniforms of all factions," explains Ko Saroeut, chief of Siem Reap's tourism office. "I think that to display such things is frightening for tourists."
Siem Reap court prosecutor So Vath accuses Aki Ra of flouting the law. He warns: "If he commits a crime again he will serve the one-year term, plus any new sentence handed down." In a ditch by the main road leading to Angkor Wat lies a battered blue sign marking the turn-off to the museum. "The governor sends the military police one or two times a month to knock the sign down," Aki Ra says. He keeps putting it back up. For the moment at least, Aki Ra's museum remains open—and a testament to Cambodia's not so distant past.