On September 5, President Barack Obama will become the first sitting U.S. president in history to visit Laos. Much will be written about his participation in the annual summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), hosted by Laos this year, and the president’s strategic rebalance to the region. But there’s another aspect to Obama’s visit that deserves attention: his opportunity to address, once and for all, the deadly legacy of U.S. involvement in Laos during the Vietnam War.
Most Americans have no idea, but nearly one third of Laos is littered with unexploded ordnance (UXO) left over from the so-called Secret War in Laos, hidden from the public and never authorized by Congress. Between 1964 and 1973, the U.S. dropped the equivalent of one planeload of bombs every eight minutes, 24 hours a day on a country the size of Minnesota. One ton of bombs was dropped for every man, woman, and child in Laos at the time, making it the most heavily bombed country per capita in history. When the campaign ended, many of these deadly bombs remained behind—at least 20,000 people have been killed or injured in Laos by UXO since the end of the war.
Just last month, the NGO World Education reported, five children were playing soccer in their village in Xieng Khouang province when they found a bomb next to the field. Curious, they took it home. When their parents heard the explosion, the children were rushed to the local hospital, but their injuries were too serious for the facility to handle. By the time they reached the provincial hospital, three hours has passed since the accident. All were admitted, with injuries ranging from burns and cuts to loss of limbs. Four children were released, while one remained in intensive care.
It is extraordinary that, more than four decades after the end of the war, accidents like this keep happening.
In recent years, U.S. support for UXO clearance and victim assistance in Laos has dramatically increased. In response to steady pressure from NGOs like Legacies of War and their allies in Congress, U.S. funding for this work increased from $5 million in 2010 to a record $19.5 million this year. These resources, disbursed by the State Department’s Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement, are used to support clearance efforts that destroy up to 100,000 pieces of lethal ordnance in Laos annually, employing 3,000 workers in the commercial and humanitarian sectors.
Last October, during one of his visits to Laos in preparation for the president’s trip, Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes stopped by one of these clearance operations near Luang Prabang. And, in the context of the Bilateral Defense Dialogue, a forum for bilateral consultations between the Lao Ministry of National Defense and U.S. Pacific Command, the countries have even discussed the possibility of U.S. military assistance for UXO removal, unimaginable just five years ago.
The rise in U.S. funding has led to a significant reduction in casualties–from 300 reported deaths in 2008 to 48 in 2014. This is a great achievement. But, as Secretary of State John Kerry said during a preparatory visit to Laos earlier this year, “50 a year is still too many.” (The actual number of casualties is almost surely higher.)
And the work goes on. It is estimated that tens of millions of pieces of UXO remain in the soil; to date, only 1 percent of contaminated land has been cleared.
Aside from the land that needs to be cleared, there are the more than 12,000 survivors of UXO accidents, like those kids in Xieng Khouang, who will need medical, rehabilitative, and psychosocial services for the rest of their lives. During her own historic visit to Laos in July 2012, the first by a U.S. secretary of state in 57 years, then Secretary Hillary Clinton visited a rehabilitation center in Vientiane. After speaking directly with accident survivors, she described the visit as “a painful reminder of the Vietnam War era.”
UXO are also a serious impediment to economic development and food security in Laos. For example, according to a joint UNDP-Lao report, at least 200,000 additional hectares of land could be made available for rice production if cleared of UXO. The UNDP has even made UXO clearance a Ninth Millennium Development Goal specific to Laos, stating, “The presence of such UXO negatively affects the socioeconomic development of the country, preventing access to agricultural land and increasing the costs, through land clearance, of all development projects, including building schools and roads.”
During his visit, Obama is expected to visit the victim rehabilitation center in Vientiane, and perhaps a bomb removal site as well. Most important, he is expected to announce a major increase in U.S. support for bomb removal and victim assistance in Laos. “We expect that President Obama will further increase [UXO] funding when he comes here later this year,” said a spokesperson for the U.S. embassy in Vientiane.
But a one-time increase in U.S. funding is not enough. Obama should announce a sustained, multi-year commitment to the UXO sector in Laos. As the State Department Office has acknowledged, year-to-year uncertainty in funding levels threatens to hamper progress; in a 2010 report, the Office of the Inspector General called the UXO clearance program a highly successful example of U.S. activities in Laos, but warned that it is endangered by inconsistent funding and that “to risk losing such gains would be a poor choice at this moment in the improving U.S.-Lao dialogue.” According to Legacies of War, no less than $25 million a year over ten years, for a total of $250 million, is required to achieve zero casualties every year for a decade.
It is also vital that additional resources be directed specifically toward survivors of UXO. There will be pressure to use rehabilitation funding, for example, for survivors of traffic accidents, which are on the rise in Laos.
Legacies of War has issued the following principles to guide any comprehensive U.S. program to support the UXO sector in Laos: full funding of a national survey of contaminated land; clearance of all contaminated areas; delivery of services to survivors via a comprehensive case-management system; comprehensive mines risk education in all affected areas; collaboration among government, civil society and affected communities; and independent monitoring and research. It is true, as Ben Rhodes recently stated, that “there is the potential for this to be a truly historic visit.” But only if the president announces a comprehensive, multi-year program to fully address the scourge of UXO in Laos.
The United States owes it to Laos to clean up the mess it left behind more than three decades ago. As Obama himself said in 2010, upon belatedly awarding an American serviceman the Medal of Honor for his heroic service long ago in Laos, “It’s never too late to do the right thing.”
Brett Dakin, the author of Another Quiet American: Stories of Life in Laos, has served as Chair of Legacies of War, a non-profit organization dedicated to raising awareness about the Vietnam War-era bombing of Laos, and a Term Member of the Council on Foreign Relations.