This April marks 35 years since the formal end of the war for Laos and much of Southeast Asia. Nearly four decades later, we’ve seen many attempts to streamline and simplify the story of how we got to this point as a community and why we fought. And there were many voices in our story. We have some names, but many more we will never know. There were Lao and Americans, Hmong, Khmu, Tai Dam, Thai, and Iu Mien just to name a few who were caught up in the geopolitical struggles of the 20th century. Only recently are we beginning to grasp the complexity of that war and the lingering ghosts we must still confront.
Among the most glaring of these is the issue of UXO, or unexploded ordnance left over in Laos. Laos was officially neutral during the Vietnam War, but between 1954-1975, this neutrality was flagrantly ignored and Laos became the most heavily-bombed nation in the world, in secret.
By war’s end, more tons of bombs were dropped on Laos than were dropped on all of Europe during World War II. A nation the size of Utah. On average, it’s estimated that 3 out of 10 of those bombs failed to detonate immediately upon impact, and we see their effect today.
Long after the war has ‘ended,’ our weapons continue to lurk beneath the surface, killing and maiming civilians, including elders and children. Many whose parents weren’t even alive during the war. Farmers can’t grow crops, children fear going to school in a time of ‘peace’. UXO denies families and villages access to usable agricultural land as well as other community development projects like schools and hospitals. Even digging a simple well for drinking water can end in tragedy.
Today, estimates suggest that close to 78 million American cluster bombs still litter the forests, rice fields, villages, roads, and other populated areas of Laos. Each year we receive reports of more than 300 new casualties. Nearly 40 years on, only a fraction of these bombs have been destroyed. Some have estimated that at the current rate of clearance, it would take nearly 500 years to remove all of these bombs.
For nine years, Americans spent $2 million a day bombing Laos. But the U.S. has barely provided more than $2.7 million per year for UXO clearance in Laos for the last 15 years. Or, as Channapha Khamvongsa, executive director of the non-profit organization Legacies of War puts it, “the U.S. spent more in 3 days dropping bombs on Laos than they have spent in the last 15 years cleaning them up.“
On April 22nd, Legacies of War and other organizations testified before the US Congressional Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific and the Global Environment about this terrible legacy we’ve left behind. But more needs to be done, and we need to speak up about our history and our responsibility.
In February, Burkina Faso and Moldova ratified the international convention banning cluster munitions, allowing the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM) to enter into force on August 1st this year. The 104 signatory nations agree to prohibit all use, stockpiling, production and transfer of cluster munitions. Other provisions deal with victim assistance, clearance of contaminated areas and destruction of stockpiles. While most European countries have signed the CCM, notably, the United States, Israel, Russia, China and India have not.
We’ve made amazing progress in 35 years as a nation. We see new voices in politics, new technology and great strides in thought, in the arts and the world of business. But as we enjoy our success and accomplishments, we cannot forget those to whom we risk leaving behind the most frightful of legacies. We must ask for more support to remove UXO from Laos and all of Southeast Asia.