Hillary Clinton touches down in Vientiane today - the first US secretary of state to visit Laos in 57 years.
Clinton’s historic visit is intended to strengthen the goals of her Lower Mekong Initiative, but for a key lobby group in Washington it represents the best opportunity since the Vietnam War to finally bring that conflict’s deadliest legacy to an end.
Channapha Khamvongsa is the daughter of Lao refugees resettled in the US after the long conflict in Indochina. She’s also executive director of Legacies of War, an NGO which has been pressing decision-makers in Congress to clean up the horrific mess the US Air Force left during its “Secret War” against communist forces in Laos in the 1960s and 70s.
Channapha says most Thais are unaware how badly “polluted” their closest neighbour is. “An estimated one-third of Laos is still littered with unexploded bombs from over 40 years ago, making land unavailable for food production or development,” she said.
“Between 1964 and 1973, the US dropped the equivalent of one planeload of bombs every eight minutes, 24 hours a day on Laos. One tonne of bombs was dropped for every man, woman and child in Laos at the time, making it the most heavily bombed country per capita in history.
“While the campaign ended in 1973, many of these deadly bombs remained behind – 20,000 people have been killed or maimed in Laos by unexploded ordnance (UXO) since the end of the war.”
For Clinton, the Lower Mekong Initiative is a key policy for improving relations between the US and Asean. It aims to boost the capacity of Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam and Laos in areas like health, environment, education and infrastructure.
But for Legacies of War – and many ordinary Lao – bomb clearance is a vital initial task that can help speed the delivery of these development goals.
“According to the UN Development Programme, at least 200,000 additional hectares of land could be made available for rice production if cleared of UXO,” Channapha said.
“Clinton’s visit to Laos is an excellent opportunity to reinforce the US’s commitment to clean up these bombs. While the US has supported bomb clearance for nearly two decades at modest levels, funding has not come close to matching the enormity of the problem: to date, only 1 per cent of contaminated land has been cleared,” she said.
“Victim assistance providers are underfunded and scores of Lao, including many children, continue to be injured or killed every year. Now is the time for Clinton to make a commitment by the US to provide at least US$10 million (Bt317 million) per year, over 10 years, to clear Laos of American bombs.
“She has the opportunity to bring to an end a 40-year-old legacy of war, leaving a new legacy of peace and economic growth and strengthening ties with an important Asean partner.”
Meanwhile, a huge number of Thais, Cambodians and Vietnamese will be hoping the US secretary of state also gives some wise advice to the socialist regime in regard to perhaps the biggest environmental issue in the region – to defer the Xayaburi Dam, which Vientiane wants to build across the Mekong River.
US officials – and a raft of environmental groups – have already voiced concerns about the $3-billion dam, which is seen as a major threat to fish stocks in highly productive areas downstream such as Cambodia’s Tonle Sap lake and the Mekong Delta.
The Xayaburi Dam is strongly opposed by both Phnom Penh and Hanoi, but to date the Lao administration has allowed Thai construction firm Ch Karnchang to construct extensive preliminary work on this highly controversial dam.
Environmental groups say the ongoing activity alongside the dam site, just south of Luang Prabang, is a betrayal of promises made to neighbouring states at discussions orchestrated by the Mekong River Commission – that it would defer the dam until further impact studies can be undertaken.