Tuesday, February 23, 2016


An old tank rusts among mango trees near Siem Reap
It's sad but true, that a 500 lb bomb is not an uncommon sight in Southeast Asia. During my travels here, I've seen them used as door stops, and as decorations. They've even been disarmed, hollowed out, and reformed to use as bells for Buddhist temples. The heavy bomb before me standing on it’s end, has a long pole sticking straight up out the nose where the detonator used to be. Atop the pole, is a Cambodian flag. This old American bomb, has become a flagpole base.

Your country have war?” one of the staff asks me as I look.

Yeah,” I answer. “We have war.” 

Although my country now fights a war in Afghanistan, (where I worked as an aid worker) it occurs to me that our war is not fought at home, like happened here. The Afghanistan war is fought in a faraway land, while most at home in America go about their normal lives. But here in Cambodia, war engulfed the entire nation. Every family suffered terrible losses, and Cambodia would never be the same. The tools used to destroy Cambodia and its people surround me here, in the Military Museum near Siem Reap.

Old Chinese and Soviet armor, stripped of parts
Unlike the usual stuffy indoor museums, this is outdoors. Here in between the grass and leafy green trees, are brownish, rusting steel hulks of old military armored vehicles. These are from the cold war era, built in China or the former Soviet Union. There are numerous tanks and armored personnel carriers. Many are stripped of their parts. Without its wheels, one armored carrier looks more like an odd metal boat, rather than a threatening land vehicle.

Some of these heavy beasts had long histories. One Soviet made T-54 tank here was built in 1954. It was later given to North Vietnam; used during the war against the US and South Vietnamese armies. After that war, it was used by the Vietnamese Army when they invaded Cambodia. Next, it was given to the new Cambodian Army. Finally, it was damaged beyond repair by a Khmer Rouge landmine in 1994. Soviet built vehicles had a reputation for mechanical breakdowns, and somehow, this one remained in use for 40 years. That may be some kind of record for a Soviet built tank.

Some tanks here were used by several different armies
I climb onto another old armored carrier parked under a tree. It’s been thoroughly stripped, with the turret and all the hatches removed. I stick my head within for a look, and find many mango laden tree branches reaching inside. The fruit hang down through open steel hatches. So this place isn’t just a military museum, it’s also a mango orchard. 

As far as high tech weapons go, there's little here. There's only an old MiG jet, and a Russian built Mi-8 helicopter outside in the parking lot. But the fact is, most of the fighting in Cambodia took place on the ground, not in the air. It was just too expensive to use jets and helicopters in this dirt poor country.  

Unlike war museums that I've seen in Laos and Vietnam, this museum has no propaganda. It's simply lots of weapons, with simple, hand written captions. A notable example, is the caption for the only unarmored vehicle on display: a wooden wagon. The caption reads:

Old disarmed weapons from Cambodia's wars
Cow Cart used to transporte the
Ammunition Weapons by Khmer Rouge
Since 1970 ~ 1998”

Well, if your tanks or trucks ran out of gasoline, I suppose it’s better to have a cow cart than nothing.

Entering a shack, I'm surprised to find a wide range of assault rifles lying on a shelf in front of me. Gun fanatics would absolutely wet themselves here. There must be nearly 50 machine guns on hand. There are weapons made in Russia, China, USA, UK, and more. There's even an Israeli made Uzi. Some look relatively new, some look ancient, including World War II era guns. There is a Browning Automatic Rifle, and a Thompson submachine gun. Surprisingly, these aren’t in display cases, and there are no locks either. I pick up the Thompson, and feel it in my hands. This is the infamous 'Tommy' gun, preferred by American gangsters way back during prohibition. For a small machine gun, it’s surprisingly heavy.

Old Rocket Propelled Grenade Launchers (RPGs)
I pick up a Kalashnikov, with its signature curved ammunition clip. I remove the clip, and pop it back in. Unlike the others, this one isn’t so rusty, and the bolt still works. I pull back the bolt and release it. It's now cocked. I pull the trigger.


Dry fire. I’m surprised at how light the AK-47 is. The M-16 they have here is very light too. These deadly weapons are so much lighter and easier to handle than the older weapons. It's no wonder they were used by so many child soldiers in Southeast Asia before, and in Africa and the Middle East today. 

I have another sobering thought. With so much violence in Cambodia over the decades, there’s a good chance that many of these weapons here in front of me have killed people, including innocent civilians. 

Finally, they have rocket propelled grenade launchers, M-79 grenade launchers, and a heavier .30 caliber machine gun on a tripod. I’ve never seen such a wide variety of weapons, in such a small place. I notice there aren’t any pistols on display though; they would be too easy to steal. It would be more difficult to walk out the exit, with a Kalashnikov under your shirt. I notice two old red flags here too, from the hated Khmer Rouge. I wonder if they were captured in battle, or if they were turned in after the 1998 peace agreement.

Chinese terror weapon: 177 mm rockets
Walking outside, four long metal cylinders are sitting on small stands. They look like tank shells, but are even longer. These are Chinese made 107mm rockets. These can be launched without the use of any tube. As such, they're very inaccurate. Since these rarely hit any military target, they are principally a terror weapon. The Khmer Rouge used these to target civilian neighborhoods of Phnom Penh in 1975. They are still in use today. When I was in Afghanistan, the Taliban used them frequently, firing them at Kabul a few times a week. Just like here, they rarely hit anything military. It was the civilians who suffered casualties.

A couple of well manicured, grassy areas are more chilling. They are strewn with various types of anti-personnel mines, and unexploded mortar rounds. All these have been disarmed. This isn’t a realistic display of landmines though. Landmines are usually invisible to the naked eye, buried just beneath the surface. It’s only after stepping on them that their exact location is known, when an explosion is triggered. By then someone has lost a limb, or a life.

Nearby are disarmed landmines. Stack after stack, all brown with rust, these have been unburied from Cambodia's footpaths, roads and rice paddies. 

I find one positive thought, among all these weapons of destruction. None of these deadly weapons that I see here, will ever hurt anyone again.

Never, ever again.
Mangoes grow inside this defanged, disabled war weapon

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