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By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON – Disarmament activists and former US ambassadors are urging Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to increase US aid to Laos to clear millions of tonnes of unexploded ordinance (UXO) left by US bombers on its territory during the Indochina War during her brief visit to the country Wednesday. The visit, scheduled to last only a few hours on a hectic eight-nation tour by Clinton designed in part to underline the Barack Obama administration’s “pivot” from the Middle East to Asia, will nonetheless be historic. No sitting US secretary of state has visited Laos since 1955.
Sources here said Clinton is considering a US$100 million aid commitment to support bomb-clearing efforts over a 10-year period. Such a commitment would more than double the nearly $47 million Washington has provided in UXO assistance since 1997 when it first began funding UXO programs in Laos.
“While Secretary Clinton’s visit celebrates a promising future for US-Lao relations,” said Ambassador Douglas Hartwick, who served as Washington’s envoy in Vientiane from 2001 to 2004, “I hope she also affirms to the Lao people America’s steadfast commitment to help Laos and the international community to resolve this legacy once and for all by clearing Lao land of deadly bombs.”
Hartwick was one of six former ambassadors to Laos who last year publicly urged Clinton to travel to Laos and adopt the 10-year, $100 million UXO proposal – originally put forward by a Washington-based organization, Legacies of War – on her way from last year’s Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Bali, Indonesia.
Administration policymakers, however, evidently decided to put off the trip until this year’s regional summit in Cambodia, Laos’s next-door neighbor.
Over the past year, Washington has intensified its courtship of China’s southern neighbors, notably Myanmar, with which relations have improved dramatically since Clinton’s visit there – also the first by a secretary of state since 1955 – last December. Before arriving in Phnom Penh late Wednesday, she spent Tuesday in Hanoi before traveling on to Vientiane.
Between 1964 and 1973, more than 2.5 million tonnes of US munitions were dropped on Laos – more than was dropped on Germany and Japan combined during World War II – making what was then the poorest country in Southeast Asia the most heavily bombed nation per capita in history.
With some 2.5 million inhabitants at the time, an average of one tonne of bombs was dropped for every man, woman and child in Laos.
Up to 30% of the bombs failed to detonate. Their remnants not only cause several hundred casualties a year, but also effectively prevent Laotian farmers from cultivating hundreds of thousands of hectares of fertile land.
Some 20,000 people have been killed or maimed by UXO over the past 40 years, according to Legacies of War. An estimated one-third of Lao land is still littered with the deadly ordinance.
Unlike with Vietnam and Cambodia, Washington never severed diplomatic relations with the communist government that eventually took power in 1975. It nonetheless took 17 years – until 1992 – for the US, whose top priority initially was to account for the nearly 600 US servicemen killed or missing in action in Laos, to fully normalize ties. Normal trade relations were formalized only seven years ago.
Washington first provided funding for UXO clearance in 1997 under president Bill Clinton and maintained aid at an average annual rate of about $2.6 million. In 2009, it rose to $3.5 million and then to $5 million in 2010. Led by Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy and Republican Senator Richard Lugar, Congress approved $9 million for this year.
The Senate Appropriations Committee has recommended that $10 million be approved for 2013, but that amount could be a harder sell in the Republican-led House of Representatives.
Proponents of the aid are hoping that a public commitment by Clinton will enhance the chances for Congressional approval for the $10 million and a longer-term commitment which they believe will be necessary to leverage additional resources from other donor countries and agencies.
“The people who continue to suffer from the bombings are ordinary Lao villagers,” said Channapha Khamvongsa, Legacies’ executive director. “We are hopeful that after witnessing the human impact of UXO in Laos first-hand, the secretary will re-affirm the US commitment to helping Laos solve this problem once and for all.”
The challenge remains formidable. While more than 1 million UXO are estimated to have been destroyed or cleared to date, it is believed that nearly 80 million are still scattered across the country.
“UXO/mine action is the absolute pre-condition for the socio-economic development of [Laos],” according to a two-year-old study by the UN Development Programme, which has worked with the government of Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong to develop a plan to focus clearance efforts on high-priority areas.
“[E]conomic opportunities in tourism, hydroelectric power, mining, forestry and many other areas of activity considered main engines of growth for the Lao [Peoples Democratic Republic] are restricted, complicated and made more expensive,” according to the UNDP, which has estimated the funding needs to significantly reduce the UXO problem in Laos at $30 million a year sustained over a 10-year period.
While the US is the single largest donor to the UXO program, others, notably Japan, the European Commission, Ireland, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Germany, and Australia, as well as UN agencies, have also contributed to the program.
Led chiefly by the UXO funding, Washington’s total bilateral aid program to Laos has grown from to $12 million for the current year from about $5 million in 2007. In addition to the $9 million for the UXO program, Washington has focused aid on the health sector and counter-narcotics.
In a related development on Monday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged Clinton to halt all aid to the Somsanga drug detention center until the Lao government conducts a full and independent investigation into human-rights abuses allegedly committed against detainees there, including children.
In March, 12 UN agencies also called for Somsanga and other drug detention centers in Laos to be closed.
“The Lao government and the US State Department claim that Somsanga is a modern healthcare center,” said Joe Amon, HRW’s health and human-rights director. “But a decade of US funding hasn’t changed the fact that it’s a brutal and inhumane detention center where the Lao government puts undesirable’ people.”
Jim Lobe‘s blog on US foreign policy can be read at http://www.lobelog.com.