"The censor believes that he can hold back the mighty traffic of life with a tin whistle and a raised right hand. For after all, it is life with which he quarrels." ~ Heywood Broun
Heroes and Paladin Poseurs
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"I don't care if a human being is black, brown, white, yellow or pink. I don't care if a human being is Christian, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, or pagan. I don't care what flag a person salutes; if a human being is hungry, then it is up to another human being to feed him/her.' ~ Cindy Sheehan Have you ever noticed that when 'public servants' do their jobs, they are often praised as some sort of hero? Yet, when one of them screws up, you can bet the excuse will be 'I was just doing my job.' Does it nauseate you to no end when sports figures, TV talking heads, generals, politicians and other pathetic poltroons are praised for their putative heroism? Do you recoil in disgust with trumped up stories of heroism fabricated to legitimize criminality? Does the image of a smug, sappy, simpering, swaggering, duty dodging, pretend paladin prancing and posing on the deck of a warship send you into fibrillating fits of fuming foaming fury? Do not fear! There is hope! True heroism really does exist! Despite the fact that the concept of heroism has been sadly debased like everything else in collectivist societies, there are living heroes that actually walk and work amongst us. One of them is Mrs. Sheehan, who fits my description of a hero. She is a person who stands up and acts courageously for her beliefs and obviously doesn't need plaques, awards, ceremonies, pretty ribbons, shiny badges or embellished myths to demonstrate that she is somebody. Consider what this fine person said. She said it is up to another human being to help. She did not say it is up to government. To the contrary, she is standing up to government. She has courageously assumed the responsibility of fighting evil. It is people like her who move society forward. It is individuals working voluntarily, either alone or in concert, who really create progress. In marked contrast, government, a form of coerced group action, has been shown repeatedly to be a massive failure and much worse by any reasonable measure. Cindy is an example of what an individual can do and there are folks like her all over the world working diligently to clean up the messes created by goons and bureaucrats who somehow profit then leave. On a recent trip to Cambodia, a potential paradise chronically impoverished and repeatedly devastated by pointless wars and rapacious rulers over the centuries, I was astonished and gratified to find evidence everywhere that there are real humans making monumental sacrifices and doing real work to help improve the lives of their less fortunate brothers and sisters. I found the place abuzz with constructive activity. It was a testament to the vitality, courage and strength of people motivated out of profound concern for their fellows. For days I witnessed the tireless labors of many men and women, all done for no other reasons than to share the joy of bringing hope to the hopeless, of replacing death and destruction with life and growth, of replacing chaos with peace. I observed that the bulk of the effort is done by individuals working in a spirit of cooperation without any government involved. Indeed, most of the work is being done despite the bureaucracy. During my stay I also became aware of a particularly outstanding example of someone actually performing public services, but privately. A thirty-something Cambodian gentleman, Aki Ra, repeatedly risks his life in private efforts to disarm land mines for his people. The word 'heroic' doesn't begin to describe the exploits of that courageous gentleman. At the risk of diminishing his remarkable accomplishments with my hopelessly inadequate descriptions, allow me to introduce his story. According to a recent article by reporter Samantha Brown in the Bangkok Post, the man, Aki Ra not only clears mines himself, but also operates a privately funded, makeshift landmine and unexploded ordinance museum. Its purpose is to demonstrate the dangers that the Cambodian people and their life-sustaining animals contend with on a daily basis. Earnings help support some 20 mine-affected children with names like Amatak and Mine who live with Aki Ra and his wife, Hourt. Countless Cambodian children have lost limbs, eyes, and family members to mines that have been widely scattered throughout the countryside. Government thugs, both foreign and domestic, and their unfortunate conscripts have placed the mines since the mid 1960's. The article states that Aki Ra clears mines himself some 5 days a month near the heavily mined Thai border despite being denied a formal license for that task. The government apparently is not too active in mine clearing operations and the rest of the world has been drastically reducing funds for the non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which had been doing it. As a result they are reduced to merely putting up minefield warning signs. However, the people need the land to grow crops, and since the government isn't effective and actually obstructs real action, Aki Ra assumes the responsibility to teach them to disarm the mines and clear the land themselves. Who is this man? Aki Ra was born around 1973 and changed his birth name from Oun Yak when nicknamed by a Japanese UN worker. The Khmer Rouge killed both his parents when he was about 5 years of age and he was conscripted as a child soldier. He spent his childhood laying land mines, firing weapons and making explosives. 'Sometimes I was so hungry I would eat the earth. I ate coal. I ate insects, any kind, and many times I was sick.' 'We would drink any kind of water we could get, even water with the blood of people in it.' Later, when invading Vietnamese captured Aki Ra's village, he was forced at gunpoint to work for them. 'It was still similar, dangerous, but a little bit better because there was more food. We could kill anything. Cows, chickens, dogs and we could eat them. But still, many people died, ' he says. TNT was used to kill fish for food or to sell to soldiers from Thailand and Aki Ra learned to defuse mines to obtain it. At the age of 13 or 14 he was teaching others how to lay mines and booby traps along the Thai border, and eventually found work with the UN mine clearing operations when the wars were over. According to the article he says, 'I knew more than the UN knew,' and instead of the UN technique of clearing mines with a metal detector and eventually exploding them, he used his feet, sticks and knives. 'I touched them to take the detonator out. Easy.' Knowing enough English, Japanese and French to become a tour guide at Angkor Wat, he eventually quit to open his museum so he could educate tourists about mines and the horrors of war. He bought a small landmine infested plot of land, cleared it himself, and displayed inactivated weapons. Naturally the 'authorities' shut him down, confiscated his collection and would have jailed him except that he managed to raise about $3000 by selling some land and borrowing. About a year later the 'authorities' opened a similar museum using his former displays. He has managed to reopen his museum and keeps it open by contributing $50 to $100 a month to the local constabulary. He has amassed a collection of over 20,000 disarmed weapons, but that is an infinitesimal fraction of the total unexploded ordinance remaining. In addition to the museum, he and his wife run the Akira Mine Action Gallery, which contains his collection of paintings, photographs, videos and memorabilia. The gallery even has a website worth visiting: http://www.akiramineaction.com/ Every other evening their gallery hosts a free Children's Concert which is performed by some of the landmine survivor kids who live with Aki Ra & Hourt. The children sing about their own lives and the lives of the many people in Cambodia affected by the ravages and insanities of war in the last 35 years. These are children who, if not for Aki Ra and his wife, would have few alternatives other than roaming the streets begging for subsistence. Unfortunately I did not get to meet the man, but I was lucky enough to stumble onto his gallery late one rainy evening near the Old Market in Siem Reap. I feel fortunate to have done so, and I intend to return. So, the next time you are expounding on the evils of government, and someone dismissively asks what can be done, mention Cindy and Aki.
A substantial portion of the information was obtained from an article by Samantha Brown entitled 'Clearing the Way' published in the Outlook section of the Bangkok Post Sept. 13, 2005. It is suggested reading.