By Parvathi Menon in India:
Laos still grappling with war legacy
Thirty-five years after the end of U.S. military intervention in Indo-China and the establishment of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, the country still grapples with the terrible and continuing legacy of the war. It has the unwanted status of being the most bombed nation in the world, and one that is most affected by cluster munitions and Unexploded Ordnance (UXO). Large swathes of the country – over 87,000 sqare miles spread over 15 provinces – still contain the deadly remnants of UXO contamination that continues to maim and kill people.
The so-called ‘Secret War’ in Laos, a war the U.S. administration denied existed, was one of the more sordid chapters of U.S. military intervention in Indo-China. Between 1963 and 1974, the U.S. subjected Laos, through which passed the supply line for North Vietnamese troops called the Ho Chi Minh trail, to a relentless bombing campaign.
More bombs were dropped on Laos than what the U.S. dropped in Japan and Germany during World War II, according to the Lao UXO Programme. Over two million tonnes of explosives were dropped on the country, with more than half a million U.S. bombing missions carried out between these years. This included more than 266 million anti-personal submunitions, called “bombies” – the small deadly bombs released from cluster bombs. It is estimated that 30 per cent of ordnance dropped on Laos remained unexploded.
“The UXOs are concentrated in nine provinces of Laos, in remote forests and agricultural fields,” said Alexang Hongkeo, an official in the administrative unit of the Laos National UXO Programmes headquartered in Vientiane.
The Lao UXO Programme, set up in February 1996, has a mandate to reduce the number of casualties caused by UXO through risk education, and to increase the amount of land available for food production and other socio-economic development activities through UXO clearance activity. This is an integral part of the country’s poverty eradication programme as the communities affected by UXO contamination are among the poorest in the country.
“Thanks to our efforts, adults now know about the dangers of UXO. Children however don’t, and often think that a bombie they find is a ball to play with,” said Mr. Hongkeo.
The Lao UXO Programme estimates that 50,000 people have been killed or injured from UXO accidents between 1968 and 2008. But the numbers are steadily falling. In 2009, for example, there was a total of 50 such accidents reported from the nine most affected provinces. And since 1996, UXO Laos has made 17,800 hectares available for agriculture and related activities by its clean up programme.
The high costs that Laos has had to bear from a grim history of U.S. aggression explains the active role the country has assumed in the Cluster Munitions Convention that came into force on August 1, 2010. The treaty has been ratified by 37 of the 107 countries that signed it. In November this year, Laos will host the first meeting of State parties to the Cluster Munitions Convention and assume the presidency of the Convention for a year.