President Obama on Tuesday said the United States “has a moral obligation to help Laos heal” as he pledged $90 million over the next three years to help clear the county of unexploded bombs the U.S dropped on the country during the Vietnam War.
“Given our history here, the U.S .has a moral obligation to help Laos heal,” Obama told about 1,000 people at the Lao National Cultural Hall in the capital of Vientiane.
“At the time, the U.S. government did not acknowledge America’s role [in Laos]. It was a secret war, and for years, the American people did not know,” he said. “Even now, many Americans are not fully aware of this chapter in our history, and it’s important that we remember today.”
The U.S. dropped hundreds of tons of bombs on Laos during the war, but one-third of those failed to explode, and 20,000 people have been killed or injured by unexploded ordinance (UXO) in Laos since the bombing ended, according to the organization Legacies of War.
The U.S. has already contributed $100 million to the effort over the last 20 years, and annual deaths from the explosions have fallen from more than 300 to fewer than 50, the White House said.
While Obama said too few Americans know of the United States' covert bombing of Laos during the Vietnam War, he offered no apologies for the bombing itself.
“Whatever the cause, whatever our intentions, war inflicts a terrible toll, especially on innocent men, women, and children,” he said. “Today, I stand with you in acknowledging the suffering and sacrifices on all sides of that conflict.”
‘Hate belongs to that era’
Obama’s commitment was embraced by at least one victim of unexploded ordinance, who told RFA’s Lao Service that the war now seems like it belongs to a different era.
“You ask me if I still hate Americans. Let me answer you frankly. I never think of hate, because hate belongs to that era,” said the victim, who requested anonymity.
“This present time is the present era,” he added. “We can’t think of the past. If we think of the past it will be haunting us forever.”
Despite the lack of apology, the bomb victim said he hopes his nation and the United States can now move forward, and that Obama will press the Lao government to allow more freedom inside his country.
“I want the Lao and U.S. governments to reconcile with each other, to forget about the past,” he said. “I want to send my hope to president Obama to talk to the Lao government, asking the Lao government to let the Lao people have more freedoms like other countries in the world.”
The president arrived in Laos late Monday after attending the Group of 20 summit in Hangzhou, China, for a series of meetings this week focusing on security, terrorism, natural disasters, and other regional issues.
Laos is this year’s chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and is hosting the ASEAN summit in Vientiane.
Reported and translated by RFA's Lao Service. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.