A B-52D indiscriminately trying to bomb communists. Source: Wikimedia
Barack Obama became the first sitting US president to visit Laos when he arrived last week for the Asean summits and, on his last official Asian trip, he wanted to address some of the sins of his predecessors in the White House.
During its war in Vietnam, the not-so secret bombing of Laos was carried out in a desperate and futile attempt to disrupt communist supply routes. More bombs were dropped on Laos than on Germany and Japan in the Second World War combined. From 1964 to 1973, Laos was one of the most heavily bombed nations per capita in history.
An estimated 30 per cent of the more than two million tonnes of bombs dropped did not explode and today many of them pepper rural areas.
Most of the munitions dropped were cluster bombs, which splintered before impact, spreading hundreds of smaller bomblets, known in Laos as “bombies”.
More than 20,000 citizens have been killed or maimed, and 40 per cent of the victims are children.
Around a third of the country is still deemed unsafe because of unexploded ordnance.
It is estimated by US-based NGO Legacies of War that less than 1 per cent of the bombs had been removed.
“We were all but forgotten here,” said Channapha Khamvongsa, founder of the organisation, who was born in Laos.
On average 50 people were maimed or killed each year, it said.
“[The cluster bombs] are tennis-ball-sized weapons,” Khamvongsa said. “The children often mistake the bombs for toys, and pick them up and throw them around. This is often the cause of an explosion.”
The poorest farmers have few options but to work affected land.
“Eighty per cent of people rely on their land to grow food in Laos,” Khamvongsa added. “So they still use their land even at the risk of their own lives.”
Obama said during his visit that he would double annual payments to US$30 million for three years to clear bombs. Khamvongsa argued that what was needed was “a larger increase in funding, as well as a long-term sustained US commitment”.
The inability to cultivate the land causes widespread malnutrition and poverty, holding back any sustainable economic development.
Around 70 per cent of the population was under 30, while high levels of stunted growth were linked to malnutrition, affecting 40 per cent of children, according to Bernie Chaves of Catholic Relief Services.
“You often see 14-year-olds who look more like 10-year-olds,” Chaves said.
“The US has a moral responsibility to do this. [An] increase in funding should be a priority of the next government coming in.”