As Clinton visits, old U.S. bombs continue to kill, maim in Laos [latimesblogs]


As Hillary Clinton made the first trip to Laos by a U.S. Secretary of State in nearly six decades, activists urged America to step up its spending to clear vast stretches of Lao land still littered with unexploded  bombs from its secret war decades ago.

From 1963 to 1973, the U.S. pounded Laos with a ton of bombs for every person in the country, part of a secret campaign to try to stop Communist incursions from North Vietnam, according to Legacies of War, a U.S. nonprofit group seeking to raise awareness of the lingering problem in  Laos.

Though the Laos attacks are said to have been the heaviest bombings per person in world history, they are all but unknown in the U.S., said Channapha Khamvongsa, executive director of the Washington-based group.

“Laos has always been the sideshow to the conflict in Vietnam,” Khamvongsa said. “It wasn’t in our history books. When people hear about the enormity of what happened, they are shocked.”

One-third of Lao land is still believed to be riddled with unexploded ordnance, and only 1% of that territory has been cleared. The deadly ordnance has inhibited Laos, one of the poorest countries in Asia, from farming and development on much of its land and has continued to brutalize civilians. More than 20,000 people are said to have been killed or maimed long after the bombings ended in Laos.

Lao ties with the U.S. remained all but nonexistent until the 1990s, when growing acknowledgment of the toll wracked by the bombings began to thaw relations, said Joshua Kurlantzick, a Council on Foreign Relations fellow for Southeast Asia. Clinton is now visiting Laos as part of the Obama administration “pivot” to Asia, where it seeks to offset the growing power of China.

The media deluge that has followed Clinton has been a boon for activists seeking to inform the public. While visiting a center that assists bomb survivors, Clinton met Wednesday with Phongsavath Souliyalat, who lost his eyesight and both hands to a cluster bomb on his 16th birthday just a few years ago.

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