A deadly legacy with moral obli­ga­tions

The Myanmar Times - - Front Page - STEPHANIE STOBBE news­room@mm­times.com Stephanie Stobbe is an as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor in Con­flict Res­o­lu­tion Stud­ies at Menno Si­mons Col­lege (a Col­lege of CMU) at the Univer­sity of Win­nipeg.

LAOS has ex­pe­ri­enced the dev­as­ta­tion of war­fare and con­tin­ues to be plagued by its deadly legacy – un­ex­ploded wartime ord­nance. The Viet­nam War was the cat­a­lyst for a wave of vi­o­lence that swept across South­east Asia be­tween 1955 and 1975, grow­ing into the events known as the Sec­ond In­dochina War. They in­cluded the Viet­nam War, the Lao Se­cret War, and the Cam­bo­dian Civil War and Geno­cide.

The Lao Se­cret War was fought be­tween the Viet­namese-sup­ported com­mu­nist Pa­thet Lao party and the Amer­i­can-backed Royal Lao gov­ern­ment. Un­der the lead­er­ship of the US Cen­tral In­tel­li­gence Agency (CIA), the op­er­a­tional goal was to de­stroy the North Viet­namese sup­ply routes along the Ho Chi Minh Trail and re­pel the 70,000-strong com­mu­nist forces op­er­at­ing in Laos. As in­ter­na­tional NGO Lega­cies of War notes, be­tween 1964 and 1973 the Amer­i­can Air Force dropped the equiv­a­lent of one B-52 planeload of bombs in Laos every eight min­utes, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for nine years, mak­ing it the most heav­ily bombed coun­try, per capita, in the world. In the most heav­ily bombed area, al­most 2 tonnes of bombs were dropped for every in­hab­i­tant in Laos.

To­day, South­east Asia is a grow­ing and im­por­tant in­ter­na­tional eco­nomic pow­er­house. For­eign lead­ers are pay­ing in­creas­ing at­ten­tion to ac­tiv­i­ties there, as rel­a­tive peace and grow­ing free­dom have al­lowed a large, in­dus­tri­ous pop­u­la­tion to burst forth with ac­tiv­ity and en­ter­prise. Even Myan­mar, af­ter 50 years of op­pres­sive mil­i­tary gov­er­nance, is seem­ingly on its way to an open econ­omy and demo­cratic gov­er­nance.

But 40 years af­ter the end of hos­til­i­ties, the residuals of war are still a ma­jor im­ped­i­ment to hu­man se­cu­rity. In con­tem­po­rary Laos, un­ex­ploded ord­nances (UXOs – land­mines, “bombies”) con­tinue to be a heavy bur­den with 25 per­cent of the coun­try’s vil­lages still con­tam­i­nated. Be­tween 1964 and 2008, 50,000 peo­ple were killed or maimed by UXOs. Some of Laos’ most in­ter­est­ing arche­o­log­i­cal and po­ten­tial tourist sights con­tinue to be off-lim­its to the main­stream, as the dan­ger of ex­plo­ration is too great. Clus­ter bomb ac­ci­dents con­tinue to kill 60pc of those that find them, and 40pc of the vic­tims are chil­dren who mis­take them for toys.

Be­tween 1993 and 2016, the US con­trib­uted US$4.9 mil­lion per year for UXO clear­ance. But con­sid­er­ing that dur­ing the war the US spent the 2013 equiv­a­lent of $13.3 mil­lion per day bomb­ing Laos, those con­tri­bu­tions seem in­signif­i­cant.

Ear­lier this month, US Pres­i­dent Obama be­came the first sit­ting pres­i­dent to visit Laos, where he toured a rehabilitation cen­tre that treats bomb vic­tims. Dur­ing his stay, he stated that the US dropped 270 mil­lion clus­ter bombs in Laos dur­ing the war, and that 80 mil­lion re­mained un­ex­ploded. With “moral obli­ga­tion”, he pledged to spend $90 mil­lion on or­di­nance cleanup over the next three years. “For the last four decades, Lao­tians have con­tin­ued to live un­der the shadow of war,” Pres­i­dent Obama said. “The war did not end when the bombs stopped fall­ing.” NGOs such as Lega­cies of War be­lieve more is needed to clear the un­ex­ploded ord­nance and es­ti­mates the to­tal fund­ing re­quired is at least $250 mil­lion, over 15 years of clear­ance work, as all 17 prov­inces in Laos are con­tam­i­nated.

Nev­er­the­less, Pres­i­dent Obama’s visit and an­nounce­ment should be met with op­ti­mism that this ef­fort will put a sig­nif­i­cant dent in the UXO prob­lem in Laos. Hope­fully, its suc­cess will re­sult in on­go­ing sup­port for UXO clear­ance, as well as fund­ing for the fam­i­lies of those who have died as a re­sult of UXOs, sur­vivor as­sis­tance (fi­nan­cial and psy­cho­log­i­cal), safety ed­u­ca­tion for all those liv­ing in Laos, and to mit­i­gate en­vi­ron­men­tal and agri­cul­tural im­pacts. And if we can re­main re­ally op­ti­mistic, at least for a few min­utes, let us hope that the great­est legacy of the Lao Se­cret War is that all coun­tries, in­clud­ing the US, will fi­nally sign the treaty ban­ning the use of these in­hu­mane clus­ter mu­ni­tions, and learn from the trauma of count­less mil­lions who have been im­pacted by them. – Pol­icy Fo­rum

Photo: EPA

Lao chil­dren stand in front of a UXO warn­ing sign along the Nam Theun dam project in Khamuane prov­ince, Laos – one of the most heav­ily mined coun­tries in the world.

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