U.S. soothes a ‘painful le­gacy’

Obama vows $90M to rid bombs from covert war in Laos

Baltimore Sun - - NATION & WORLD - By Josh Lederman and Kath­leen Hennessey

VIENTIANE, Laos — Declar­ing a “moral obli­ga­tion” to heal the wounds of a se­cret war, Pres­i­dent Barack Obama on Tues­day pledged help to clear away the 80 mil­lion un­ex­ploded bombs the U.S. dropped on Laos a gen­er­a­tion ago — more than 10 for ev­ery one of the coun­try’s 7 mil­lion peo­ple.

A half-cen­tury ago, the United States turned Laos into his­tory’s most heav­ily bombed coun­try, rain­ing down some 2 mil­lion tons of ord­nance in a covert, nineyear chap­ter of the Viet­nam War.

Obama, the first pres­i­dent to set foot in Laos while in of­fice, lamented that many Amer­i­cans re­main un­aware of the “painful le­gacy” left behind by a bom­bard­ment that claims lives and limbs to this day.

“The rem­nants of war con­tinue to shat­ter lives here in Laos,” Obama said be­fore an au­di­ence of stu­dents, busi­ness­men and or­ange- robed Bud­dhist monks who held up cell­phones to snap photos of the pres­i­dent. “Even as we con­tinue to deal with the past, our new part­ner­ship is fo­cused on the fu­ture,” he said.

To that end, Obama an­nounced the U.S. would dou­ble its spend­ing on bomb-clear­ing ef­forts to $90 mil­lion over three years — a rel­a­tively small sum for Pres­i­dent Barack Obama greets at­ten­dees in a tra­di­tional way af­ter a speech Tues­day at a sum­mit in Vientiane, Laos. the U.S. but a sig­nif­i­cant in­vest­ment for a small coun­try in one of the poorer cor­ners of the world. Obama plans to put a hu­man face on the is­sue when he meets Wed­nes­day in Vientiane with sur­vivors of bombs t hat Amer­ica dropped.

The pres­i­dent did not come to apol­o­gize. In­stead, he called the con­flict a re­minder that “what­ever the cause, what­ever our in­ten­tions, war in­flicts a ter­ri­ble toll — es­pe­cially on in­no­cent men, women and chil­dren.”

Thanks to global cleanup 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 up­ward of 15,000 sur­vivors around the coun­try that are still in need of sup­port.”

The $90 mil­lion to clean up bombs joins an­other $100 mil­lion the U.S. has com­mit­ted in the past 20 years. The Lao gov­ern­ment, mean­while, says it will boost ef­forts to re­cover re­mains and ac­count for Amer­i­cans miss­ing since the war.

The air campaign on Laos was an ef­fort to cut off com­mu­nist forces in neigh­bor­ing Viet­nam. U.S. war­planes dropped more ex­plo­sives on this South­east Asian na­tion than on Ger­many and Ja­pan com­bined in World War II, a stun­ning statis­tic that Obama noted dur­ing his first day in Vientiane.

Obama was one of sev­eral world lead­ers vis­it­ing Laos to at­tend the As­so­ci­a­tion of South­east Asian Na­tions. Tak­ing its turn as chair of the re­gional fo­rum, Laos’ com­mu­nist gov­ern­ment is seiz­ing a rare mo­ment in the spot­light.

For Obama, the visit serves as a cap­stone to his years-long ef­fort to bol­ster re­la­tions with South­east Asian coun­tries long over­looked by the United States. The out­reach is a core el­e­ment of his at­tempt to shift U.S. diplo­matic and mil­i­tary re­sources away from the Mid­dle East and into Asia in or­der to counter China in the re­gion and en­sure a U.S. foothold in grow­ing mar­kets.

Yet Obama’s out­reach took an un­com­fort­able turn just as he headed to Laos from an­other sum­mit in China. The White House called off a sched­uled meet­ing Tues­day with Pres­i­dent Ro­drigo Duterte of the Philippines — a U.S. treaty ally — af­ter the new leader re­ferred to Obama as a “son of a bitch.”

Duterte, who had been ex­pect­ing Obama to crit­i­cize his deadly, ex­tra­ju­di­cial crack­down on drug deal­ers, later said he re­gret­ted the per­sonal at­tack on the pres­i­dent.

Obama filled the hole in his sched­ule by meet­ing with South Korean Pres­i­dent Park Geun-hye in a dis­play of unity a day af­ter North Korea fired three bal­lis­tic mis­siles. Obama vowed to work with the United Na­tions to tighten sanc­tions against Py­ongyang, but he said the door wasn’t closed to a more func­tional re­la­tion­ship.

Obama’s Asia project, dubbed his pivot or re­bal­ance, has yielded un­even re­sults, as con­flict in the Mid­dle East has con­tin­ued to de­mand at­ten­tion and China has bris­tled at what it views as med­dling in its back­yard.

So with just four months left in of­fice, Obama used his his­toric trip to Laos to re­assert his aims. He touted new mil­i­tary aid and U.S. sup­port for re­gional co­op­er­a­tion in ad­dress­ing mar­itime dis­putes and made a plug for the Tran­sPa­cific Part­ner­ship free trade agree­ment, the pol­icy’s cen­tral eco­nomic com­po­nent that is now stuck in Congress.

MADE NAGI/EPA

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