Obama meets victims of leftover bombs in Laos
US President Barack Obama has paid tribute to survivors maimed by some of the 80 million unexploded bombs America dropped on Laos decades ago during the Vietnam War. He also pledged US help to finally clean them up.
Touring a rehabilitation centre in Vientiane yesterday, Obama said the US had a “profound moral and humanitarian obligation” to work to prevent more bloodshed from the remnants of the US bombardment. He touted his administration’s move to double spending on ordinance clean-up to roughly $90 million over three years.
“For the last four decades, Laotians have continued to live under the shadow of war,” Obama said. “The war did not end when the bombs stopped falling.”
About 20,000 people have been killed or wounded since the war ended, Obama said after viewing displays of small rusted grenades and photos of a child missing his foot. He insisted those were “not just statistics”, but reminders of the heavy toll inflicted by war – “some of them unintended”.
“I’m inspired by you,” he told one survivor, Thoummy Silamphan, who uses a prosthetic after losing a hand to one of the bombs.
Half a century ago, the United States turned Laos into history’s most heavily bombed country, dropping some 2 million tonnes of ordnance in a covert, nineyear chapter of the Vietnam War. The first US president to set foot in Laos while in office, Obama lamented that many Americans remain unaware of the “painful legacy” left behind.
The $90 million is a relatively small sum for the US but a significant investment for a small country in one of the poorer corners of the world. Obama sought to put a human face on the issue by meeting with survivors of bombs that America dropped.
The president did not come to apologise. Instead, he said he hoped the strengthened partnership on clearing the bombs could mark a “decisive step forward” between the US and this landlocked communist nation.
Thanks to global clean-up efforts, casualties from tennis ball-sized “bombies” that still litter the Laotian countryside have plummeted from hundreds to dozens per year. But aid groups say far more help is needed. Of all the provinces in landlocked Laos, only one has a comprehensive system to care for bomb survivors.
“We’re incredibly proud of the progress the sector has made over the last five years in terms of the decline in casualties and new victims,” said Channapha Khamvongsa of the nonprofit Legacies of War. “But we are concerned about the upwards of 15,000 survivors around the country that are still in need of support.”
The $90 million Obama announced follows $100 million the US has committed in the past 20 years. The Laos government, meanwhile, said it will boost efforts to recover remains and account for Americans missing since the war.
The punishing air campaign on Laos was an effort to cut off communist forces in neighbouring Vietnam. American warplanes dropped more explosives on this Southeast Asian nation than on Germany and Japan combined in World War II.
Obama was one of several world leaders visiting Laos to attend a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
TOUR: Obama is shown examples of bombs that have been retrieved