Jan 27, 2004
I survived the trip to the minefield. I need to now start working on an article for publication. I decide to visit HALO Trust, a NGO that does de-mining. I'm looking for information about their work to contrast it against the way that Akira finds and disarms mines. Their HQ is only a few miles outside of Siem Reap. I bike out there without an appointment.
As I approach the entrance gate, there is a big sign: "This facility is paid for by the US State Dept." I'm met at the gate by a guard who speaks little English. I just keep smiling and asking for the Public Relations Department. After a few minute, another Khmer, who speaks better English, comes out. A brief discussion, one phone call and five minutes later, I'm being led into an office to meet with HALO's Program Manager.
Apparently 1100 people work for HALO Trust and only 2 of them are expats. They both share this office. It's like a line from a bad movies, but the Program Manager starts the conversation with:
"I'm very busy. You have 5 minutes."
"That shouldn't be a problem." I reply. "I'm a freelance journalist. I have been volunteering at the land mine museum. Mostly, I just need a copy of your annual report."
"Nein", is his response.
I ask for other reports, press kits and executive summaries, but he will not give me anything.
He explains that numbers given alone can be easily misconstrued or misrepresented. The documents that they have are prepared for the sponsoring governments, not for the general public or press. And finally, Akira, from land mine museum, pissed everyone off by taking free copies of Handicapped International Annual Report and selling them. He doesn't want Akira to get ahold of any of his documents. He then starts ranting about Akira. Akira is a "charlatan". The museum is a fraud and his parents who were supposedly killed by the Khmer Rouge are alive and well in a neighboring village.
The Program Manager has been a bit gruff and and not at all helpful. Then suddenly, much to my surprise, he volunteers to take me de-mining. Would I like to go up to Anlong Vang tomorrow, for a 3 day de-mining trip? My visa is about to expire so I'm unable go, but I tell him that I will consider coming back in a few weeks.
I let myself out. As I leave two Afghans are being led in. They're here for de-mining training.
On the bike ride back to Siem Reap, I have a lot to think about. I'd been suspicious of Akira for some time. A lot of money goes into the museum's donation box and I'm not sure of where most of it goes. During the taxi ride to Malai, Akira told us stories about being an arms dealer in 1990. Arms dealer wasn't an uncommon profession in Cambodia at that time, but to sell guns in Thailand he'd have to have close connections with the Khmer Rouge as recently as the '90s. Finally, his motivation for de-mining seems a bit odd. It doesn't seem to be a desire to help people, or guilt from laying mines. It seems like goes de-mining these days just to show off. Rather than being a noble educator and de-miner, he could instead very well be a con-man.
I find myself with even less motivation to continue volunteering at the museum. I could stay on as an investigative journalist and try to expose Akira as a fraud, but there isn't much of a story there. No one cares about some minor con man in some third world country. Instead, I decide to quit my volunteer position at the museum.
I also consider the option of returning to Cambodia to go de-mining with HALO. I hadn't planned on going de-mining at all. I certainly hadn't planned on going multiple times, but contrasting Akira's cowboy de-mining style to HALO's slow careful methodical approach should be interesting. I'll have to take a very long hard bus two more times if I want to return to Cambodia, but I can handle that. It means changing my plans yet again, but that's no big deal. My one real hesitation is the Program Manager refusal to give me any documentation about their work. They have a stable funding source from sponsoring governments so they have little reason to care about public opinion. I don't think that he'll answer any of my difficult questions, instead he'll most likely just evade and ignore them. I suppose that's the life of a journalist.
Once I'm in Bangkok, and have a working laptop again, I'll decide if I'm returning to Cambodia for a 2nd de-mining expedition.
i'm working in the mine action field and met akira a couple of years ago when i lived in cambodia. i am interested in hearing more about why you think he is a con-man and why you think that you could 'expose him as a fraud.' beyond some theory about his connection with the khmer rouge, which doesn't say much, and the fact that it seems to you he de-mines for the sole purpose of showing off (does this make him a fraud or a cheat?)i am curious to know if you have any supporting evidence. if you don't, i think it is unfair to write about him as you did.
mgchealey - May 24, 2005
mgchealey - May 24, 2005
HOW LONG DID YOU STAY AT THE MUSEUM .I LIVED WITH AKIRA AND HIS FAMILY FOR 9 MONTHS HES NOT A CON MAN. A MAVERICK YES, BUT THE CHILDREN WHO LIVE WITH HIM AND HIS WIFE NOW SPEAK ENGLISH JAPANESE AND CAN READ AND WRITE THERE OWN LANGUAGE THANKS TO HIM. AS MINE VICTIMS BEGGING WAS THERE ONLY LIFE PROSPECT NOW THEY HAVE A CHANCE OF A HAPPY LIFE.JOURNALIST YOU JOKE ,GO WRITE FOR THE SUN THEY PRINT SHIT.
I have legitimate reasons for suspecting that Akira is somewhat of a con-man. I had a long with mghealy about this, and he did nothing to convince me otherwise.
But, he did point out that whatever Akira might do wrong, he does do good work in the form of taking care of a half-dozen amputee kids.
chris - Oct 13, 2005
I know Akira very well,
he is not not a con-artist,
he is one of the most helpful persons I have ever met. 100% selfless, and he is even opening up another orphange.
Phil Parry - Mar 29, 2006
You the f**k are you to go writing stuff accusing people of being a con artist without any foundation. You've taken it from the Halo Trust as gospel. The Halo trust get paid for there good work. They get paid well and when the mines are gone they won't get paid anything... So come on mate, if you're the big investigative journalist then expose away you berk. And apart from the stuff in the shop, nothing is 'For Sale' those reports are there to take away and if you want to make a donation you can. You've obviously spent no constructive length of time with Akira or you'd see where the money from the donations box goes. Some of it on the $100 of dollars of bribes he has to fork out for clearing some greedy village chiefs village, on schooling 20 kids, on building scools and then living his life. Where's his flash car and big house? Get in touch if you want to know more, I've been to volunteer 3 years running and met Akira in London when he was in the UK while he was doing his EOD2 (a UK ministry of defence affiliated mine clearing course) which Matthew Healy (mentioned above helped him with) at great expese to himself. This certificate gives him the right and all proper documentation to clear mines. As much right as US or UK formed mine clearing firms. He's Cambodian, is it alright for him to clear his own country? Is that OK by you?
P.S. This still makes me laugh out loud, "I could stay on as an ivestigative journalist and try to expose Akira as a fraud, but there isn't much of a story there."!!! You've got a lot to learn as an ivestigative journalist mate! If there isn't a story don't journalists usually make one up! You've gone a little bit of the way, go on you can do it!!
wendy - Mar 31, 2006
OK, I guess I am the only one of this bunch who has NOT personally met Mr. Aki Ra or is involved as his volunteer or friend. With that said, I STILL feel the same wave of incredulity [as these respondents] at your stark, unfair, and unfounded suspicions and accusations of a man who is [publicly] loved by many -- young and old -- and who maintains a good reputation among his peers, comprised of both fellow Cambodians and other respected, world-wide citizens, [no doubt] through his selfless actions.
The deed of writing these accusatory pieces of your entry in a PUBLIC domain designed to be read by those the world round, most certainly begs for you to also SUBSTANTIATE them with legitimate reasons. This, you have failed to do despite waving that piece to us in your response to Matthews comment on May 24, 2005. I am truly interested in reading about what your legitimate reasons are. Enlighten us!
I guess I am sort of lost in this blurry line youve cast between blog material and [investigative] reporting. What are your definitions of them? What are the conventions of each? Are they so similar that one can mingle the two? Or are your entries something else entirely?
I guess I am appalled that you seemingly USED Mr. Aki Ra to get your story and fix to sensationalize in your public entries (I am referring to XMAS DAY IN A MINEFIELD entry). He seemed to have openly invited or allowed you to be a privileged part of that experience in Malai, so that you could photograph, film, and document him and his de-mining techniques -- all to wind up on your site for you to claim bragging rights to. Then you have the nerve and disrespect to slam him with your unsubstantiated suspicions and accusations without further mention in post-entries to resolve them. Shame on you!
> I guess I am sort of lost in this blurry line youve cast between blog material and [investigative] reporting.
This is an interesting question. It's a new world, and that line is currently being defined.
> With that said, I STILL feel the same wave of incredulity [as these respondents] at your stark, unfair, and unfounded suspicions and accusations...
There is a gray line between voicing suspicions and making accusations, but I'm pretty sure that I did the former. I told Matthew this, and I will tell you this. I will be happy to write a retraction should anyone convince me that my suspicions are unfounded.
> This, you have failed to do despite waving that piece to us in your response to Matthews comment on May 24, 2005.
Locals in Siem Reap told me that Akira gambles, and that he has bought motorbikes for his girlfriends. Basically, no one that I talked to had anything good to say about Akira. The only people who have positively spoken about Akira are tourists who have passed through his museum and volunteers who stayed a while. From my perspective, all of that added together to something fishy is probably going on.
From Matthew, I asked that he somehow document Akira's expenditures. It was impossible. A new museum was in planning where Akira would have to keep records of all of his income... I don't know what happened with that.
> and who maintains a good reputation among his peers, comprised of both fellow Cambodians...
From you, I'll ask this. Who are these Cambodian peers who praise Akira, and for what? He knows about landmines and de-mining -- that's very clear. But will they praise his honesty and financial integrity?
> I guess I am appalled that you seemingly USED Mr. Aki Ra to get your story
That was certainly not my intent. I came to the museum to teach English to amputee kids. From there, I just honestly wrote about my experiences.
I did not ask to go into a minefield. Akira invited me and another volunteer to go, and the volunteers ended up paying for the truck. Who used who?
Let me contrast Akira to Sem Sovantha from the Angkor Association for the Disabled. Everyone speaks very highly of him. And he can very clearly and easily account for any income and expenditures. Why the difference?
Cat Moj - Mar 31, 2006
As an ex-volunteer along with with mgchealey and Phil Parry I'm not interested in debating Akira's history but would like to discuss the NGOs you've mentioned.
With regard to Handicap International (HI) documentation, I'm afraid that's an old expose. I'd like to pose you the question, which I posed to the HI staff member who told me this story when we met in Siem Reap in 2003:
Why do we as westerners automatically assume that other cultures understand our intrinsic values? That they will act as we will act? Why did HI not simply explain to akira that this was a mistake and move on?
My colleague and I convinced the HI man to come to the LMM (Oct. 2003) and share his knowledge with us volunteers. We had a postive experience: he explained and gave us statistics to put on display, made suggestions. Akira was renovating and was pleased to put HI info on display. Akira was concerned that visitors might steal the information/mines (not unheard of!!!)
Since 2003, HI have willingly supplied a copy of their monthly reports upon my request. All of which are now filed or laminated and on display. None are sold as they are available online. Same goes for annual Landmine Monitor (ICBL) reports which we download and display.
But in terms of journalism and your idea that there is little value in mine clearance as a story ... let's talk mine clearance fact and potential stories that await you back in Cambodia.
It's interesting that you've accepted HALO's perspective as the only gospel to follow. HALO's staunch disapproval of village demining techniques and individuals is well known in the NGO world. As an investigative journalist I'm sure you'll recognise that village demining IS a story that deserves attention. I'm certain you'll be aware of the Nobel Prize winning ICBL and its articles about the debate on village demining (www.icbl.org). In particular, you may like to investigate Ruth Bottomley's Cambodia-based research on the advantages of village demining.
I was pointed to Ruth's research by this particular HI staff member back in 2003. Her investigation makes for very interesting reading and the conclusion is perhaps somewhat unconventional - in favour of village demining! Thus in favour of individual effort such as akira's.
Equally interesting: an international and well-respected NGO , MAG (Mines Action Group) are now piloting a programme to train village deminers in Battambang province.
Unlike HALO's current position, MAG recognises the wish within the community for individuals to be involved, particularly men like Akira who have had military experience. These individuals will take action to clear their own community (fields, jungles, paths) whilst they wait for the NGOs. Like Akira, they knowingly risk their lives and limbs but have a desire, indeed a need to be involved.
MAG's actions are documented on the ICBL website (and in Section 74 of the Cambodia Landmine Monitor report, 2005) and it is very exciting reading!
So, rather than dismiss Akira as a terrible person and take the word of one high-profile Western NGO as gospel, why not get back to Cambodia and investigate not the gossip, but the bigger story behind what Akira is doing - village demining?? Village demining is contentious and given that international experts are themselves at odds, perhaps you and I as non-experts in this field should, as interested parties, take every opportunity to read, listen and learn from ALL experts and their differing perspectives?
Thank you for that interesting and informative post. I actually did research all sides of the issue. I am not particularly impressed with Akira, but I am even less impressed with the NGOs.
Unlike Akira, they do document their work and their expenses.
From my entry about the NGOs:
CMAC, HALO Trust, and MAG
" I realize that my math here is going to misrepresent things a bit, but these numbers are fact. Some quick division shows that on average, each team member [CMAC team 2] removed an explosive device every 10 days."
"On average each team member [CMAC team 1] removed one explosive device every 2 months!"
The amount of time and money that they NGOs spend removing one landmine is shocking.
I think that village demining _is_ the right way to move forward.
Tom - Sept 02, 2007
Behave yourself 'investigative journalist' katz.
Its the right of everyone to form and express their opinions on whatever subjects they choose -damaging and unfounded conjecture with no substance however, is slanderous and dangerous to those you choose to cast your opinions on.
Tom - Sept 02, 2007
Behave yourself 'investigative journalist' katz.
Its the right of everyone to form and express their opinions on whatever subjects they choose -potentially damaging and unfounded conjecture with no substance to it however, is slanderous and dangerous to those you are talking about.