One of the saddest realizations of becoming an overseas expats is learning how little Americans know about the rest of the globe. In defense of my countrymen (and women), it’s not entirely our fault since we’re controlled by a mainstream media that’s a “for-profit” élite industry caring only about reporting profits at the next shareholder meeting. With greats like Dan Rather and Walter Cronkite long gone, the memories and knowledge of some of history’s greatest tragedies disappeared and with social media replacing networks as the main source of “news” for most Americans, the November election results aren’t really any great surprise. Thankfully, eight million or more Americans live outside the homeland and those of us lucky enough to retire abroad are among the citizens that benefit from the plethora of great educational tools available from little known historical sites to amazing archeological monuments.
Finding small and relatively unknown museums that teach me something ranks high on my list of priorities while living overseas and The Cambodian Landmine Museum fits the bill perfectly. Included on a day trip from Siem Reap along with one of the area’s most fascinating temples (Banteay Srei), we spent two hours or so at this gem of an attraction and came away with a wealth of information barely mentioned in any American history book. Innocently shielding our schoolkids from some of the worst unspeakable acts the nation’s ever participated in, few people even know that America engaged in a relentless five-year bombing campaign that literally destroyed the Cambodian people. Dropping tons of landmines all over the nation, the stated goal of the mission was to destroy the supply chain between the North Vietnamese Communists and Thailand. Victimized by one of America’s most deplorable foreign policy decisions in its history. the result is a nation literally littered with landmines designed exclusively to maim and not kill. Thanks to the efforts of some brave Cambodians, the nation is finally almost free from landmines. Too bad it’s taken almost 45 years to make thinks right.
Arriving early at about 9 AM, we shuffled out of our van and paid our entrance fee of $5 USD each. Not expecting anything much based on most TripAdvisor reviews, it seems too many tourists care little about listening to lengthy headset programs that teach things they know little about. Often opting for a quick stop so they can head out to the world-famous attractions with great photo ops, let them go and stay for the entire presentation. Surprisingly well done and spoken in perfectly comprehensive English, the headset explains every display in the four rooms and provides historical insights beyond the scope of the signage. Beginning with a brief description of Aki Ra, the museum’s founder, we discovered he’s a Cambodian that dedicated his life to finding, charting and dismantling thousands of unexploded devices throughout the nation. Featured on CNN’s Top 10 Heroes in 2010 and chosen from over 10,000 entrants, his story is special and heartwarming.
Entering the small museum’s main gallery, there’s some signage detailing the founder’s story. A former Khemer Rouge conscripted child soldier, he spent his days as a deminer. Before the days of government assisted clean up efforts, mines that littered the nation’s countryside maimed and injured thousands of Cambodians. Often ending up orphaned or without medical attention, their futures looked grim. Aki Ra used to go out in the fields without any proper training or equipment and literally try to disarm them one by one. Eventually, the government ordered him to stop for safety reasons and he decided to devote his efforts into founding the museum. Also serving as relief facility for young victims, the grounds are also home for hundreds of kids and the organization clothes, houses and educates hundreds of young people whose lives got upended by landmines. Certified as inactive by international teams, the museum houses hundreds of bombs and landmines manufactured all over the world.
Divided into different rooms that are each devoted to different topics from the history of landmines to the bombing raids on Cambodia, the headset walks you diligently through each exhibit and taught me more than I’d ever imagined about these horrible weapons of destruction. One of mankind’s worst inventions, they design landmines to maim but not kill because the idea is that it costs more to take care of injured civilians and servicemen than it does to simply bury them. Conventional wartime thinking by the Communists, The Khmer Rouge and countless other brutal dictatorships, the idea is that landmines weaken the enemy by forcing them to spend more time and effort on the disabled than on troops and weapons. Still in use today in Syria, parts of Africa and Russia, they’re still manufactured by at least a few rogue nations.
Many Americans know little about the brutal bombing campaign started by Lyndon Johnson as early as 1965 and stepped up by newly inaugurated President Richard Nixon during the peak of The Vietnam War on March 18th, 1969. Lasting all the way until 1973 and given the code names Operation Menu and Operation Freedom Deal, these covert actions by the U.S. Strategic Air Command resulted in 2.7 million tons of bombs being dropped on the nation. Displacing as much as 30% of the population, the raids left millions of unexploded “duds” all over the fields, mostly in rural villages. Unfortunately, landmines can stay active for 100 years or more and we learned about a landmine recently in discovered in Alabama from The Civil War that needed to be disarmed.
Possibly the worst result of the hideous bombing campaign (aside from Bush-era secrecy) was the social upheaval that led to The Pol Pot Regime’s rise to power. During the Vietnam War, the North Korean Communists ran supply routes through parts of Cambodia and Laos and Henry Kissinger advocated for disrupting these routes at the expense of at least 500,00 innocent people who died as a result. By the CIA’s own admission, this allowed the Khmer Rouge to propagandize the event and rise to power after the war ended in 1975. As if the bombings weren’t bad enough, it’s estimated two to three million people then died from starvation and forced labor.
Touring The Landmine Museum acts as kind of primer for understanding what happened before the Khmer Rouge came to power. Extensively more well-known, The Killing Fields in Phnom Penh are hard to take but well worth your time (We visited them the following week and I’ll discuss them in a future post). Maybe I’m in the minority but I really believe the only way we avoid repeating history is through education and it’s critical for Americans stuck in a world of patriotic rah-rah and rhetoric to understand the dark side of the nation before condemning every else’s race, religion and ethnicity.
Thankfully, the museum is intelligently planned so you get the bad news first. Moving to the next room, we learned about Cambodian Self Help Demining. After the world began acknowledging the problem of leftover landmines throughout Southeast Asia, the government teamed up with the international community and established a set of organized procedures and guidelines to eliminate all the remaining explosive devices. Slow, tedious and sometimes frustrating, teams of qualified people now speak with village elders and other locals and determine plots of land they think still have landmines in the fields. Identifying and tagging each square mile with government surveys, they methodically deactivate each device and it’s no longer permissible to either detonate or remove them for everyone’s safety. They’ve successfully mapped and identified over 90% of nation and hardly anyone gets maimed or hurt anymore.
There’s another room devoted to artwork that’s all been done by kids in local communities including impressive dioramas and a sculpture composed entirely of deactivated missiles and bombs. Another interesting (and sad) fact is that most of the world signed a bilateral agreement drafted by Canada agreeing to disarm all active landmines and stop future manufacturing. Naturally, the United States didn’t sign on, citing South Korea’s refusal to sign due to strategic concerns over North Korea. Russia and Syria also refused to sign which means despite most of the world’s wishes to stop internationally accepted war crimes like manufacturing devices specifically designed to injure but not kill, we’re no better off than we were in 1969. And with the new president-elect, I’m sure this is probably just fine with many people.
For my money, I’d rate this incredible museum as one of Southeast Asia’s best small undiscovered museums and highly recommend a visit for anyone interested in learning about one of the saddest chapters in world history that much of the western world knows nothing about. The positive news is that Cambodia is making a fast and steady climb out of the poverty and the future looks much brighter. Like all developing nations, they’ve got a long way to go but your tourist dollars help immensely towards educating the children, helping the economy and most importantly, sharing what you learned with others. Twitter feeds filled with lies, bad information and fake “news” won’t help make the world a better place for your children but teaching them open-mindedness and encouraging visits to unfamiliar places like Cambodia just might.