As Clinton visits, old U.S. bombs continue to kill, maim in Laos

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As Hillary Clinton made the first trip to Laos by a U.S. Secretary of State in nearly six decades, activists urged America to step up its spending to clear vast stretches of Lao land still littered with unexploded  bombs from its secret war decades ago.

From 1963 to 1973, the U.S. pounded Laos with a ton of bombs for every person in the country, part of a secret campaign to try to stop Communist incursions from North Vietnam, according to Legacies of War, a U.S. nonprofit group seeking to raise awareness of the lingering problem in  Laos.

Though the Laos attacks are said to have been the heaviest bombings per person in world history, they are all but unknown in the U.S., said Channapha Khamvongsa, executive director of the Washington-based group.

“Laos has always been the sideshow to the conflict in Vietnam,” Khamvongsa said. “It wasn’t in our history books. When people hear about the enormity of what happened, they are shocked.”

One-third of Lao land is still believed to be riddled with unexploded ordnance, and only 1% of that territory has been cleared. The deadly ordnance has inhibited Laos, one of the poorest countries in Asia, from farming and development on much of its land and has continued to brutalize civilians. More than 20,000 people are said to have been killed or maimed long after the bombings ended in Laos.

Lao ties with the U.S. remained all but nonexistent until the 1990s, when growing acknowledgment of the toll wracked by the bombings began to thaw relations, said Joshua Kurlantzick, a Council on Foreign Relations fellow for Southeast Asia. Clinton is now visiting Laos as part of the Obama administration “pivot” to Asia, where it seeks to offset the growing power of China.

The media deluge that has followed Clinton has been a boon for activists seeking to inform the public. While visiting a center that assists bomb survivors, Clinton met Wednesday with Phongsavath Souliyalat, who lost his eyesight and both hands to a cluster bomb on his 16th birthday just a few years ago.

“So many survivors are without help. Their life is very, very hard,” Souliyalat reportedly told her.

“We have to do more,” Clinton replied.

Laos has spent roughly $15 million annually to clear bombs, help victims and educate its people to avoid them, according to Khamvongsa. The U.S. recently upped its annual support for bomb clearance to $9 million, more than three times its average annual spending since it began chipping in 15 years ago. Norway and Japan have also stepped up their spending, making them now the biggest donors to the cause.

Activists now want the U.S. to ramp up its support to at least $10 million annually for the next decade, to help Laos reach a desired bomb clearance and assistance budget of $30 million annually.

The problem has also fueled continued calls for the U.S. to join an international convention on cluster munitions, which it has so far declined to do. Instead, the U.S. has sought another law that would still allow it to use newer cluster bombs, which it argues are less likely to fall unexploded.

“Clinton’s visit has been significant, but we want to see her pledge for support translated into concrete action, and soon,” said Amy Little, campaign manager for the Cluster Munition Coalition. Joining the convention would show Laos and the world that the U.S. would never use cluster bombs again, she said.

The U.S. did not announce any new funding Wednesday, but uncleared bombs were one of the shared concerns that U.S. and Lao officials cited in a joint statement emerging from their meetings. Clinton also talked to Lao officials about Laos joining the World Trade Organization, environmental issues and accounting for Americans still missing since the warfare in the region, the joint statement said.

Simply showing up and listening has given the State Department new credibility in Southeast Asia as it makes its strategic pivot, Kurlantzick said. The Laos visit is part of that larger trend.

“There’s a clear recognition that America’s future, stability and prosperity is increasingly connected to Southeast Asia,” said Suzanne DiMaggio, vice president of global policy programs at the Asia Society. “And as these economies continue to grow and outpace economic growth in other parts of the world, it makes sense for the United States to be paying more attention.”

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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, left, speaks with Phongsavath Souliyalat, who lost his forearms and sight from an unexploded bomb left since the Vietnam War, while she tours the Cooperative Orthotic Prosthetic Enterprise Center in Vientiane, Laos, on Wednesday. Credit: Brendan Smialowski / Associated Press

 
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