Published on
The Guardian/UK

Laos and the Legacy of Vietnam

The US gives $3m a year to clear cluster bombs in Laos. For nine years, it spent $2m a day to drop them. We must do more

Brett Dakin

As US combat troops return from Iraq, remnants of another American war – fought more than three decades ago – are still claiming casualties today. The tiny south-east Asian landlocked nation of Laos has the dubious distinction of being the most bombed country, per capita, in the world. During the Vietnam war, US-led secret bombing raids over Laos left behind millions of unexploded cluster bombs that continue to maim and kill civilians today.

Most Americans have no idea, but in 1964, the United States began a nine-year bombing campaign in Laos that ultimately dropped 260m cluster submunitions on the country. These small, toy-sized weapons were dropped from airplanes in large shells or bomb casings, which opened in mid-air and released the bombs for detonation on impact.

But many of these bombs did not blow up as designed. Instead, they remained hidden in the ground. Today, nearly half the arable land in Laos is still littered with unexploded bombs. And, more than 35 years after the bombing ended, an average of 300 Lao people are injured or killed by these weapons every year.

10 September 1996: the date is etched in blue ink in Bounmi's notebook. On that day, Bounmi, then 14, was digging a large hole for a fish pond for his family. All of a sudden, his shovel hit a bomb, buried in the earth decades before he was born, and it exploded. Bounmi was rushed to the nearest medical facility. His life was saved, but he lost his left arm.

Americans Bounmi's age learn about the Vietnam war, if at all, from history books or movies. We know that Vietnam veterans continue to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and other wounds of battle, but generally the events of the war are, for us, a thing of the past. For Bounmi, and other victims of unexploded bombs in Laos, the war never really ended.


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This situation is indeed tragic but it is by no means hopeless. In November, Laos will host the first meeting of states parties to a new international treaty to ban cluster bombs, which obliges governments to destroy stockpiles, clear affected land and assist victims. This past April, for the first time ever, the US House of Representatives held hearings on the legacy of the US bombing of Laos. Representatives of the Committee on Foreign Affairs learned of the extent of the problem, the progress that has been made so far to address it, and the US contribution to that effort.

The bomb removal programme in Laos began about 15 years ago, and today at least 1,000 workers are destroying ordnance. The removal process is slow and painstaking, but it works: the Laos programme is called the "gold standard" by the state department's own weapons removal and abatement office. But it needs more money.

So far, the US has contributed an average of about $3m a year to bomb removal efforts in Laos. In contrast, the US spent more than $2m a day (about $17m in today's dollars) for nine years dropping the bombs in the first place. The US can, and should, do more.

The state department must make a sustained commitment to solving this problem, starting with an allocation of at least $7m next year for the removal of unexploded ordnance in Laos. According to the department's own weapons removal and abatement experts, this would dramatically reduce the impact of unexploded ordnance in Laos. A modest increase in funding would have an enormous impact for the people who live among the hidden remnants of the Vietnam war in Laos.

Today, not only is Bounmi studying hard, but he is also volunteering to help others whose lives have been forever altered by encounters with unexploded bombs. It's admirable work, but he really shouldn't have to be doing it. We have to get to the point where, for Bounmi, just as for our own students, the Vietnam war is where it belongs: in the history books.

Brett Dakin is the author of Another Quiet American: Stories of Life in Laos. He is also the chair of Legacies of War, a Washington-based non-profit organisation working to raise awareness about the Vietnam war era bombing of Laos

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