Features | Society | Southeast Asia

Vietnam’s Cluster Bomb Shadow

Decades after the Vietnam War ended, cluster bombs still leave large swathes of land in Laos off-limits. But the foot-dragging on a ban continues.

By Irwin Loy for

The jungle has long since grown to reclaim the old rice fields and the houses that once stood here. But Khambou Many still remembers vividly what happened the day the bombs fell from the sky and burned his home to the ground.

‘I still remember it,’ the 50-year-old farmer says quietly. He gestures out into the distance, to where the river curves around the bend and a paved road winds its way up a hill toward his old home.

‘Before, this village was located over there,’ Khambou says. ‘But there was a big bombing. Then the houses caught fire. People had to run away from the village.’

Khambou was only a child during the Vietnam War. For his family and others in this village in south-eastern Laos, their suffering was just a matter of bad luck—his village sat along the makeshift supply route that came to be known as the Ho Chi Minh trail.

The North Vietnamese army used the network of old footpaths and trails hacked from the jungle to bypass the demilitarized zoneseparating the north from the south.Nor far from here, the North Vietnamese kept a munitions dump, storing vital combat supplies like ammunition and fuel. Under the cover of night, the convoys would descend the steep banks and attempt to cross the river. It was a natural choke point on the route and the US military exploited it. When the trail backed up, US bombers struck.

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US planes hit the area at least three times around the early 1970s, according to data utilized by the group Norwegian People’s Aid, which runs a de-mining operation here.

The cluster bombs they used dispersed in mid-air; each weapon unleashing hundreds of smaller sub-munitions. The records suggest each of the bombings, flown by a pair of interceptor jets, dropped more than 5000 individual cluster sub-munitions each time. But with an estimated 30 percent failure rate for the sub-munitions—or ‘bombies’ as villagers here call them—the effects of the long-ended war still linger.

These days, most reminders of the conflict that destroyed Khambou’s village are buried. And that’s part of the problem.  The cluster bombs still litter overgrown fields throughout this part of the country. If you were to plot each air strike on a map—each strike a tiny red dot—the area would be awash in a sea of red ink.

De-miners here use flight records from those bombings to map out estimates of the contamination. The massive footprints have left a deadly mark along the winding river, over the distant ridge and through the unproductive fields of Khambou’s village.

The bombs have trapped the farmer and his family—and many other villagers in this area—in a cycle of poverty. Unable to use their own land to grow crops, they’re forced to buy basic necessities like rice and vegetables from other villages.

‘We can’t grow anything on the land now,’ Khambou says. ‘We want to plant rice in other villages, but they won’t allow us. We used to try, but they said, “No, this is our village. You’re not allowed to do farming in our village. You have your own land.” But we say we can’t because there are cluster bombs there.’

Vietnam’s Cluster Bomb ShadowIt’s a situation that’s mirrored across many parts of the region affected by US air strikes. The Ho Chi Minh trail stretched from Vietnam, through south-eastern Laos and down to Cambodia; it’s still littered with the remnants of war. Accidents, many involving impoverished farmers digging on their land or children playing in contaminated fields, still kill or maim hundreds in the region every year.

But while the second Indochina war linked all three countries in an ideological conflict, today their respective governments have taken divergent approachesto resolving the lingering problem of cluster bombs.

Last month in Vientiane, representatives from more than 100 governments met as part of the first meeting of states party to the Convention on Cluster Munitions—the international treaty banning the use of cluster bombs. But of the three Indochina countries, only Laos has signed and ratified the accord, something that has frustrated disarmament advocates who had hoped the countries most affected by the weapons would stand united on the issue to offer a potent symbol for the world’s major users of the weapons, including the United States, who have refused to sign on.

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Of the ASEAN member states, only Laos, seen as the most heavily bombed country on earth, has both signed and ratified the treaty. Indonesia and the Philippines have signed on but not ratified. Though many of Laos’s neighbours have indicated they intend to sign the cluster bomb ban at some point, observers say long-standing rivalries between neighbours in the region are playing a role in delaying such action.

‘There’s a lack of mutual trust among countries in South-east Asia,’ says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. ‘The cluster bombs convention is a case in point.’

Tensions continue to simmer, for example, between Thailand and Cambodia, mainly over a dispute over land adjacent to the Preah Vihear temple area, or Phra Viharn, as it’s known in Thailand.

Cambodia was seen as a leader in negotiating the terms of the cluster bomb treaty and encouraging its neighbours to back it. But when the treaty was opened for signing in December 2008, Cambodia surprised observers by reversing course.

‘Cambodia certainly recognises the great importance of and fully supports this treaty,’ Hor Nambora, Cambodia’s Ambassador to the United Kingdom, said at the time.‘However, due to the recent security development, Cambodia now needs more time to study the impacts of the convention on its security capability and national defence.’

Almost two years have passed, and the country appears to be no closer to signing. Both Cambodia and Vietnam remain on the sidelines of the issue.

Vietnam’s Cluster Bomb Shadow‘When it comes to the neighbourhood directly, few countries want to be inhibited by treaties vis-à-vis their neighbours, especially those with common borders,’ Thitinan says. ‘So it’s a prisoners’ dilemma of sorts.’

This sort of distrust has affected decision makers throughout the region.

Denise Coghlan, director of the group Jesuit Refugee Services in Cambodia and a long-time campaigner against land mines and cluster bombs, says government representatives she has spoken with often point to their neighbours when explaining why their country hasn’t yet signed. When our neighbour agrees to it, they say, that’s when we will, too.

‘Different countries point to the fact that Singapore was not on board,’ Coghlan says, noting that Singapore still produces the controversial weapons and maintains that states should be allowed to use them for self-defence.‘Others point to the fact that Thailand and Vietnam weren’t on board.’

Coghlan sees the delays in signing as a product of behind-the-scenes disagreements between states’ decision makers and their militaries.

‘I’d say that in most countries, there’s some difference of opinion between the diplomatic officials who want to sign on and the defence ministries,’ she says. ‘The defence ministries are much more wary about denying themselves the use of any weapons.’

Governments in the region also say the cost of destroying existing stockpiles represents a significant barrier to signing the treaty, since the convention obligates states parties to eliminate their stockpiles within eight years, as well as guarantee support services to cluster bomb survivors. It’s believed that Cambodia possesses a limited stockpile of cluster bombs, although their condition—and the military’s ability to deploy them—are uncertain. Vietnam’s own stockpiles are less than clear. Neither country is believed to have ever used the weapons.

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But the wariness of countries in the region to officially back the treaty, Coghlan argues, is looking increasingly out of touch as other nations around the world have started to sign on. So far, 108 countries have joined; of these, 48 have ratified the treaty and have committed to its terms.

‘I don’t think any of them are ever going to use cluster bombs. Imagine dropping cluster bombs on the country next door to you. It’s almost unbelievable,’ she says. ‘Maybe they think it gives them some advantage on paper to think that they still have another weapon in their arsenal. But it’s a weapon that you can’t really use. It doesn’t seem to be much of an advantage to me.’

But while South-east Asian countries hold off on signing the treaty, some risk being left out of crucial donor funds targeted toward the removal of cluster bombs and other unexploded ordnance.

By hosting November’s conference, Laos became a symbol of the cluster bomb problem. And by the time the Vientiane-set meeting wrapped up, foreign governments had announced $6.7 million in new funding specifically for Laos—representing roughly 60 percent of de-mining funds from donor countries for all of last year. Yet officials in Cambodia have warned that de-mining funding has already waned in recent months and could jeopardise future operations.

Back in Sekong, villagers in tiny Ban Lavi Fangdeng go about their daily lives, knowing the tiny bombies may be just underfoot. Just steps away from where the old Ho Chi Minh trail descends along a rocky slope, farmer Khammun, 45, has built a small hut and a modest crop of beans.

‘We just try to walk where we know it’s safe,’ says Khammun, who uses only one name. ‘But the children, they don’t know. You never know when they might find something.’

De-mining operations are active in the area, but progress is expensive and time-consuming. Khammun says he isn’t sure when the de-miners will reach his land.

‘I just want it all to be cleared,’ he says. ‘I don’t want any more bombs on my land.’

Irwin Loy is a Phnom Penh-based writer. His articles have also appeared in publications including The Christian Science Monitor, The Guardian and CNN Traveller, among others.