Laos is the most heavily-bombed country in human history and the recent inaugural visit by an American President, with his pledge of additional aid, may not be enough to combat the country’s deadly unexploded ordnance legacy, Stephanie Stobbe writes.
Laos has experienced the devastation of warfare and continues to be plagued by its deadly legacy – unexploded wartime ordnance. The Vietnam War was the catalyst for a wave of violence that swept across Southeast Asia between 1955 and 1975, growing into the events known as the Second Indochina War. They included the Vietnam War, the Lao Secret War, and the Cambodian Civil War and Genocide.
The Lao Secret War was fought between the Vietnamese-supported communist Pathet Lao party and the American-backed Royal Lao government. Under the leadership of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the operational goal was to destroy the North Vietnamese supply routes along the Ho Chi Minh Trail and repel the 70,000-strong communist forces operating in Laos. As international NGO Legacies of War notes, between 1964 and 1973 the American Air Force dropped the equivalent of one B-52 planeload of bombs in Laos every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for nine years, making it the most heavily bombed country, per capita, in the world. In the most heavily bombed area, almost two tonnes of bombs were dropped for every inhabitant in Laos.
Today, Southeast Asia is a growing and important international economic powerhouse. Foreign leaders are paying increasing attention to activities there, as relative peace and growing freedom have allowed a large, industrious population to burst forth with activity and enterprise. Even Myanmar, after 50 years of oppressive military governance, is seemingly on its way to an open economy and democratic governance.
But 40 years after the end of hostilities, the residuals of war are still a major impediment to human security. In contemporary Laos, unexploded ordnances (UXOs – land mines, “bombies”) continue to be a heavy burden with 25 per cent of the country’s villages still contaminated. Between 1964 and 2008, 50,000 people were killed or maimed by UXOs. Some of Laos’ most interesting archeological and potential tourist sights continue to be off-limits to the mainstream, as the danger of exploration is too great. Cluster bomb accidents continue to kill 60 per cent of those that find them, and 40 per cent of the victims are children who mistake them for toys.
Between 1993 and 2016, the US contributed $4.9 million per year for UXO clearance. But considering that during the war the US spent the 2013 equivalent of $13.3 million per day bombing Laos, those contributions seem insignificant.
Earlier this month, US President Obama became the first sitting president to visit Laos, where he toured a rehabilitation centre that treats bomb victims. During his stay, he stated that the US dropped 270 million cluster bombs in Laos during the war, and that 80 million remained unexploded. With “moral obligation,” he pledged to spend $90 million on ordinance cleanup over the next three years. “For the last four decades, Laotians have continued to live under the shadow of war,” President Obama said. “The war did not end when the bombs stopped falling”. NGOs such as Legacies of War believe more is needed to clear the unexploded ordnance and estimates the total funding required to be at least $250 million, over 15 years of clearance work, as all 17 provinces in Laos are contaminated.
Nevertheless, President Obama’s visit and announcement should be met with optimism that this effort will put a significant dent in the UXO problem in Laos. Hopefully, its success will result in ongoing support for UXO clearance, as well as funding for the families of those who have died as a result of UXOs, survivor assistance (financial and psychological), safety education for all those living in Laos, and to mitigate environmental and agricultural impacts. And if we can remain really optimistic, at least for a few minutes, let us hope that the greatest legacy of the Lao Secret War is that all countries, including the US, will finally sign the treaty banning the use of these inhumane cluster munitions, and learn from the trauma of countless millions who have been impacted by them.