Morse ’71 Helps Cambodians Remove Landmines
By Robyn Ross for TCU Magazine
In 2003, William “Bill” Morse ’71 was working as a business consultant when a colleague asked him for a $100 donation for Aki Ra. “What’s an Aki Ra?” Morse asked.
“Who, not what,” Morse’s colleague said. “Aki Ra is a Cambodian man who’s clearing landmines in his country with a stick and a pair of pliers. He’s taking care of a dozen wounded and orphaned kids at his Landmine Museum, and he needs to buy a metal detector to find the mines.”
Sounds like a scam, Morse thought. But he searched for Aki Ra online, and what he found changed his mind.
Aki Ra had been a child soldier, kidnapped by the Khmer Rouge army after it took control of Cambodia in 1975. During the next four years, the regime, led by dictator Pol Pot, killed more than 2 million Cambodians either in outright executions or through overwork in labor camps.
Before his 10th birthday, Aki Ra was forced to fight alongside the communist faction and lay landmines. When Vietnam invaded Cambodia in late 1978, the army conscripted Aki Ra to fight the Khmer Rouge. In 1989, the Vietnamese army withdrew, but Aki Ra continued to fight the Khmer Rouge, this time with the Cambodian army.
United Nations peacekeepers arrived in the early 1990s and trained Cambodians, including Aki Ra, to defuse landmines. When the U.N. left, so did Aki Ra’s access to the proper defusing equipment. But Aki Ra felt compelled to undo some of the damage he’d done by laying landmines as a child.
He cleared the mines and live ordnance using primitive tools, working mostly in small villages that were low priorities for the international nongovernmental organizations doing the demining. “He was the Babe Ruth of demining,” Morse said. “He could do stuff other people couldn’t do.” Aki Ra’s rogue operation gained the attention of documentarians and the international press.
Tourists Become Residents
Morse and his wife, Jill, decided to visit the Landmine Museum, where Aki Ra showed tourists his collection of defused mines and unexploded ordnance. They traveled to the museum, 15 miles north of the famous temples in Siem Reap, and met Aki Ra. The couple also met the dozen children Aki Ra adopted, most of them injured or orphaned by landmines.
Morse learned that it cost Aki Ra less than $500 a month to defuse the mines and care for the children. When Morse returned to the U.S., he started the Landmine Relief Fund to support Aki Ra’s efforts.
But Aki Ra’s do-it-yourself approach to demining didn’t sit well with the Cambodian government, which was formalizing minefield clearance to meet international standards. When the government required Aki Ra to get a license, he decided to start his own organization, Cambodian Self-Help Demining, and called on Morse for help with the paperwork.
Morse agreed, traveling to Cambodia in 2007 for two months that stretched into two years. As the trip ended, he and Jill talked about moving to Siem Reap. Morse could work with Aki Ra full time, and his wife could teach school.
The couple made the leap in 2009, renting a house and bringing their dog. Five years later, they sold their house in Palm Springs, California. The two plan to spend the rest of their lives in Cambodia.
‘We Have a Responsibility’
During Morse’s TCU years, the idea of retiring to Southeast Asia would have struck him as bizarre. The Vietnam War dominated news reports in those days. But Morse always wanted to be in the military and attended a military school before transferring to TCU, where he joined the ROTC despite his opposition to the war.
“The only way the military is going to change is from within,” he told friends who didn’t understand his decision.
Morse remembers Capt. Bill Crouch, an ROTC instructor who taught ethics, as his most influential teacher.
“I sometimes came into an ethical quandary when I had my business,” he said. “I would often sit down and go, ‘What would Crouch say?’”
Morse got involved with the anti-war movement at TCU after members of the National Guard fatally shot four unarmed students at Kent State University in Ohio during the May 4, 1970, demonstration against the bombing of Cambodia.
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in education, Morse taught high school history. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army but, in a twist of fate, was assigned to the reserves rather than deployed to Vietnam.
Morse worked on several political campaigns, including George McGovern’s presidential campaign in 1972. In the late 1970s, he embarked on a three-decade business career, starting a manufacturing company and then working as a consultant for businesses in transition. One of those consulting gigs introduced him to the man who was raising money for Aki Ra.
Now Morse spends his days giving tours at the Landmine Museum and Relief Center, a sister nongovernmental organization to Cambodian Self-Help Demining. The center also generates income for the demining operation.