The US Push to Clean Up the Bombs it Left Behind in Laos

The US Push to Clean Up the Bombs it Left Behind in Laos
Photo Credit: AP/達志影像

What you need to know

Recently the U.S. has substantially increased its spending on UXO clean-up in both Laos and Vietnam. Why now?

In news that may help Laos successfully compete for the world's attention in a week cram full of colourful leaders' meetings, the U.S. has announced it will spend another US$90 million to help clean up unexploded ordnance (UXO), a legacy of the 2 million tonnes of bombs the U.S. dropped between 1964 and 1973 on this small, landlocked nation.

U.S. President Barack Obama made the announcement on Tuesday during his first visit to Laos, host of this week's ASEAN summit, and which remains the most bombed country on earth, by head of population. During the so called "secret war" that ran in parallel to the Vietnam war, the U.S. conducted 580,000 bombing missions in an effort to take out Vietnamese troops using the jungle corridors and parts of the Ho Chi Minh Trail that ran into Laos, and also the communist Pathet Lao, who were running Laos from caves in the north. It's estimated that as many as 30% of the bombs dropped in those mission remain unexploded. That is until someone, frequently a child, disturbs them.

UXO was a focus of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Laos in July 2012. A lot was packed into that four-hour visit, with Clinton meeting young people who had been blinded and maimed by UXO as well as Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong. The Joint Statement issued after the meeting made it clear it was substantive, taking in UXO, the World Trade Organization, military personnel missing in action, environmental protection, and the importance of civil society.

At that time Laos was still to formally enter the WTO. Now it has and it has also, since the beginning of this year, gained a new government that may be more sympathetic to its old friend Vietnam, rather than the larger and richer China which has built so much infrastructure of late.

The U.S. and Laos formalized a strategic partnership in November and this week built on that with terms for a comprehensive partnership that included the war legacy issue. The country remains top of mind for Hillary Clinton it seems, and her successor John Kerry has also spoken of UXO, noting that while the number of related deaths and injuries is falling, 50 a year "is still too many."

For Laos, trying to develop, clearance of UXO is crucial. It is not just a humanitarian and socio-economic problem but also contributes to food insecurity by limiting safe access to potentially rich agricultural land, and adds to the cost of development projects when land needs to be cleared, as documented in the Laos National Strategic Plan for the UXO Sector signed by the Prime Minister in 2012.

Recently the U.S. has increased its spend on clean-up in both Laos and Vietnam tremendously. Chuck Searcy, who works at Project Renew in Vietnam’s Quang Tri province says U.S. government funding for Vietnam has increased from roughly US$3-4 million per year over the past couple of decades to a recent pledge of more than US$50 million – at least – between now and 2020.

Jonathon "Gus" Guthrie, an Australian who has worked in UXO removal in Laos and Vietnam since 2004, and is currently as a project manager with Norwegian People’s Aid, said: "I think you will see a commitment of up to US$20 million per year for a five year period. That’s reasonable and if the funds can be directed into the right activities, then you should see a reasonably accurate measurement of the contamination in Laos, something that has not been achieved before."

"Right" activities include evidence-based survey and clearance which ensures the focus is on clearing known contaminated areas rather than areas "suspected" of being contaminated, an approach that can waste time and money on clearing land that doesn't need to be. An evidence-based approach can yield a 90 percent clearance rate.

However, there is more to UXO work than just digging bombs out of the earth. Vietnam and Laos also need to educate their people on what to be wary of, and what actions to take if a suspected bomb is found. Victim assistance also needs to properly funded and carried out (Mrs Clinton also squeezed in a visit to an artificial limb centre during her 2012 visit).

The wartime legacies of the U.S. and its allies in Vietnam and Laos are complicated things as demonstrated by controversy over the Long Tan commemoration in Vietnam last month. Removal of UXO is a tangible way to heal the wounds of war and prevent more from developing.

But why is the U.S. spending up big now, so many years after those bombs were dropped? According to Searcy, there is growing consensus that a final "push" from the U.S. in support of the Vietnamese and the Lao governments might truly bring some closure to this UXO issue, and result in making both countries comparatively safe – even though vigilance and clean-up will continue for many years to come.

This article originally appeared in the Lowy Interpreter.

First Editor: J. Michael Cole
Second Editor: Olivia Yang