Spin the Globe with Justin Butner

A world citizen may provide value to society by using knowledge acquired across cultural contexts.

Obama and Our Legacy in Laos

This week President Obama made a historic visit to Laos, the first of any sitting US President. This visit is long overdue given the amount of American military personnel involvement here in the past. For those who don’t know much or anything about the intertwined histories of the US and Laos, please read on. There is, for the sake of brevity, the passage of time, and my being as born after all of this happened, much nuance lost and many things omitted. I seek only to give an overview of the topic.

At the most basic level, the US has never been at war with Laos. We have been at war with Laos’s eastern neighbor, Vietnam. The International Agreement on the Neutrality of Laos explicitly stated that it was off-limits to foreign interference, including with regards to the Vietnamese/American War.

Scratching the surface, it is apparent that the lack of a formal war with Laos doesn’t mean much for whether the US has launched military actions there. Museums documenting a major violation of that peace exist in the two biggest tourist cities in the country. In UNESCO-heritage-listed Luang Prabang, the Unexploded Ordinance (UXO) Museum stands as a testament to not only the US involvement in the country but also the long-lasting effects. In Vientiane, the capitol, the COPE Visitor Center documents both of these as well, with a focus on the prosthetic limbs and improvised handicapped accessories used to help those affected by the leftovers of war.

During the Vietnam War the US ran secret bombing missions over Laos. Many of them. More than 270M cluster munitions (over 2M tons) were dropped from 1964 to 1973, averaging out to a planeload dropped every 8 minutes for the entire 9-year span of the engagement. This has earned Laos the dubious distinction of being the most bombed country per capita in the world.

This fact would be bad enough for the sheer destruction and inherent displacement of people, but the failure rate of bombs was high. Up to 80 million (about 30%) of the munitions dropped didn’t explode on impact. Some of these were duds. Some were mis-calibrated on sensitivity so they need an increased triggering mechanism, such as high heat or severe impact. Some just didn’t get knocked hard enough when they landed and are still very impact sensitive. These bombs litter the eastern half of the country. In the 43 years since the bombing ended, these bombs have killed or maimed 20,000 people.

The number is decreasing annually for a variety of reasons. Some of the bombs that are more easily triggered have been, as well as those closer to populated areas. Money has been spent on clearing the bombs, but it is a very slow process using leg-power and metal detectors to find bombs in a mountainous, rural country. And there is the education outreach that teaches villagers to leave the bombs alone and report them.

The hardest exhibit at either museum was the education video at the UXO Museum in Luang Prabang. It first detailed that extreme poverty and a high price for scrap metal encourage many rural villagers to go retrieve bombs rather than reporting them. This can (and does) have serious negative repercussions. The video then featured four people, how they were injured by UXO, and the pertinent safety advice. Don’t play with bombs and don’t hit them were helpful messages for the children. In these instances the UXO had been seen and were handled inappropriately. Be careful where you dig, because there could be UXO underground was a bit tougher to hear. In a country built on farming, telling people not to plow unless you’ve plowed there before enacts some tough limits. But the final lesson was the hardest. For buried UXO that respond to heat, you must build a pedestal of dirt and rocks before you can build a fire for cooking. A woman had been disfigured when she had the audacity to try to cook. And she seemed guilty about it, like she should have known not to try to make dinner outside of her house.

Yet even with the decreasing death and injury rate, this still translates to the US military killing Laotian civilians every year, having never waged war against them.

The museums do a good job of explaining the what and they don’t hide the why – the US was crossing the border to bomb the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a supply line that ran along the Laos side of the border from communist-controlled North Vietnam to help the resistance in South Vietnam. They leave it at that though, never explaining why the Vietnamese army was on the ground in a neutral country*.

If you dig a bit deeper you find that as with many histories of conflict, the answer is much more complicated and nuanced. The Japanese captured Laos along with most of southeast Asia during WWII and a vacuum was left in their defeat. It was filled with rival factions for either Lao independence or a French return. After the latter won, factions for the ruling Royal Lao Party (supported by the US, France, and Thailand), a Neutralist faction, and the Pathet Lao (supported by the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) and the Indochinese Communist Party) took hold and spent the next several decades in a civil war. As a neutral country by convention, no outside influences were allowed to get involved. More details are in the footnotes**, but all of the supporting counties ignored that neutrality.

In the end, the US bombing of a country it wasn’t at war with was not necessarily opposed by the government of that country. It was directed at an opposing military force that had just as little legal right to be in the country.

The degree to which this war was even happening was a slowly unraveled mystery. Though US military involvement was not perfectly secret at the time it was happening, it wasn’t until US Senate hearings in 1971 (7 years into the campaigns) that the administration acknowledged our presence in Laos. It was years after the war before any details emerged. And it wasn’t until President Clinton authorized the release of military strike data in 2000 that the full extent of the bombings was known. CIA documents remain classified and could mean that we are wrong about “the full extent.”

Today, the country that was home to up to 80 million UXO at the end of the war in 1973, is still home to 99% of those. They cover at least 33,669 square miles, or 37% of the country (up to 50% by some estimates). They cause warnings to only walk on pre-established trails. They contaminate more than 25% of the villages in the country at a “high” or “moderate” rate. They infect a large percentage of the countries arable land, thus completely stifling any chance of increased production and limiting the income potential of many rural and minority farmers.

They are our legacy, and Obama has just pledged $90M in a joint three-year project to aid in their discovery and disposal***. This is a huge step toward acknowledging our past and our mistakes. It is a step toward making right our wrongs. And it is a step towards helping a very poor country with critical levels of hunger have the opportunities to change these things.

Knowledge of this problem is the first step toward fixing it. Share this information as you feel appropriate. If you would like to learn more about the UXO problem in Laos or donate money to the cause, please visit http://www.copelaos.org/ and http://www.uxolao.org/. You can read more on the Secret War in Laos at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laotian_Civil_War and www.legaciesofwar.org.

I will also note here that though there are 100 nations that have signed the Convention on Cluster Munitions banning the use of such weapons, the USA, China, Russia, and Israel (among others) have all refused.

* They still manage to come off as neutral, unlike the war museums in Vietnam which talk about the torture conducted by the South on Northern POWs and the Christmas parties and dinners conducted by the North for the Southern POWs.

** Immediately after WWII, the French and the US (and Thailand) helped with support and training for the Royal Lao Military. For a time, the US actually took over military salaries. Meanwhile, the Indochinese Communist Party worked on recruitment in the country and the PAVN began work on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Fighting between the Royalist forces and the PAVN continued until in 1954 the French were defeated and withdrew, ending the First Indochina War (but not the Laotian Civil War) with the Geneva Conference of 1954.

The Geneva Conference established Laotian neutrality. The internal struggles of Royalist vs. Communist were to be 100% internally Lao, with no foreign forces allowed to help. Neither side fully complied. The PAVN continued recruitment of militia and use of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. French and US civilians (former military) served as advisors and trainers to the Royal Lao Military. As skirmishes and battles happened, as the border between Royal and Pathet territory shifted, the letter of the law was ignored much as the intent had already been disregarded.

When the Neutralist government took over in a near-bloodless coup, it was the Americans who helped drive them out to reinstall the West-friendly Royal Government, which drove the Neutralists and the Communists together. But two years later the three parties agreed to form a coalition government, triggering the requirement from the Geneva Conference for all foreign military technicians to leave. Only the US complied, and the PAVN’s continued presence prompted the US to go back in. So on and so forth. And as the Vietnamese/American War waged on, the Vietnamese continued use of the Ho Chi Minh Trail to bring supplies south.

*** For the optimist, this is more money than the $84M the US gave for UXO clearance from 1995-2014. For the pessimist, this is less money than the US spent on one week of a bombing campaign that lasted for 9 years. (The US spent $13.3M (in 2013 dollars) per day on bombing.) I could not find any data on how much UXO clearance activities cost and how much land is expected to be reclaimed with this $90M.

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3 comments on “Obama and Our Legacy in Laos

  1. Ken Kanashiro
    September 8, 2016

    Thank you! Very well written and cited. How severely is your village and business affected by UXO?

    • Itinerantics
      September 14, 2016

      Fortunately not at all. We are in the far northwest of the country, about as far from the HCMT as you can get. I’ve not heard of any UXO being found around here.

  2. Cy Butner
    September 13, 2016

    Well done! A very clear and compelling overview of a complex history. I think your words and links will spur additional support for achieving a solution to this major problem.

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This entry was posted on September 8, 2016 by in America, Laos and tagged , , , .

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