WASHINGTON—The United States is spending millions of dollars to clean up unexploded ordnance it dropped on Laos during a secret bombing campaign during the Vietnam War, a senior U.S. official says, but legislators and advocates want it to do even more.
Scot Marciel, deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, told a congressional panel Thursday that Washington doesn't aim to “remove the last bit of unexploded ordnance (UXO) from Laos, any more than Western Europe has removed all of its explosive remnants of war from World War II.”
“Instead, our goal is to help Laos become as ‘impact free’ of its explosive contamination as possible—and the country has made major strides in that direction,” he told the House Foreign Affairs Committee Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, and the Global Environment.
Laos is considered the most heavily bombed nation on earth, and today nearly one-third of the country’s land is littered with UXO. Unexploded munitions cause around 300 casualties in Laos each year.
Marciel highlighted international funding of nearly U.S. $15 million dollars to Laos this year, which he said had cleared “hundreds of thousands” of explosive items from about 70 square kms (27 square miles) of “high priority land.”
If international support remains at that level for the next decade, he said, the country would see “vastly reduced” casualty levels and the clearance of “virtually all of the country’s highest priority land areas.”
But Rep. Mike Honda, a Democrat from California, said he is unsatisfied with the current level of State Department funding for UXO cleanup in the Southeast Asian nation.
Failing to fully remove UXO in Laos "doesn't sit well with me. I think that we did it—we clean it ... this should be incumbent upon us ...To leave even one [bomb] behind, where a child or a person may become maimed or killed because of that, is not acceptable."
Channapha Khamvongsa, executive director at the Washington-based Legacies of War, urged more effort to help Laos deal with an issue that has crippled development in the impoverished nation by leaving much of its arable land unsafe.
Thursday’s hearing at the U.S House of Representatives was the first on UXO in Laos, despite the high number of UXO casualties there more than 40 years after the bombing campaign—one-third of them children, she said.
Call for increased funding
This would ensure that casualty rates fall to dozens or fewer per year, she said.
She said the Lao government’s National Regulatory Authority (NRA), which oversees UXO clearance, victim assistance, and risk education alongside partner organizations and international donors, requires up to U.S. $28 million in funding over the next 10 years to meet UXO sector goals.
Those goals include reducing casualties to fewer than 75 per year, ensuring medical and rehabilitation needs for survivors, and releasing priority land and clearing UXO in accordance with national standards and treaty obligations.
The U.S. government has provided, on average, U.S. $2.7 million per year for clearance in Laos over the last 15 years.
In contrast, the U.S. military spent an equivalent of U.S. $17 million a day for nine years bombing Laos, according to a Senate Congressional record from 1975.
Despite a Congressional mandate for U.S. $5 million for bomb removal in Laos this year and in subsequent years, the State Department is requesting only U.S. $1.9 million for fiscal year 2011, according to Khamvongsa.
Most funding from the State Department goes directly to Lao UXO, a Lao-based quasi-governmental organization responsible for UXO clearance, Marciel said.
A dangerous legacy
Of 260 million cluster bombs dropped on Laos from 1964-73 by the U.S. military, nearly 80 million failed to explode on contact.
Cluster munitions contain dozens of "bomblets" that separate from the delivery vehicle and scatter before impact. Unexploded bomblets become, in effect, anti-personnel landmines.
During the bombing campaign, which targeted supply lines used by the Communist Viet Cong along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the equivalent of a planeload of bombs was dropped every eight minutes, 24 hours a day for nine years, according to a U.S. Senate Congressional record from 1975.
These weapons, many of which are buried in villages, rice fields, schoolyards, pastures, and forests, continue to kill and maim today.
Virgil Wiebe, of the UK-based NGO Mines Advisory Group, told the House panel that UXO still exacts a heavy price on Laotians, their economy, and their future.
“Widespread contamination restricts economic growth by limiting the population’s ability to grow cash crops, thereby forcing many individuals and families into subsistence farming,” Wiebe said.
“Those efforts at subsistence farming are themselves hampered by the presence of unexploded ordnance.”
Original reporting by Joshua Lipes. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.