Clearing Laos of U.S. bombs should be a high priority

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By Del. Eni F.H. Faleomavaega (D-American Samoa) – 07/13/12 10:38 AM ET

On July 11, 2012, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton landed in Vientiane, the capital of Lao PDR, for a brief visit on her way to meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Cambodia. The last time an active U.S. Secretary of State stepped foot in the country was in 1955, during the Cold War. Nine years later, in 1964, the U.S. began a Secret War in Laos, unauthorized by Congress, to stem communist ground incursions and to interdict traffic along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. Between 1964 and 1973, the U.S. dropped the equivalent of one planeload of bombs every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, on a country the size of Minnesota. One ton 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.

Secretary Clinton’s visit marks the beginning of a new era in U.S.-Lao relations — one focused not on this violent past, but on a bright future. As a Vietnam War veteran who served at the height of the Tet Offensive, I take a personal interest in seeing Laos heal from the wounds of the war. However, I also know that the ghost of the terrible bombings is still very present in the daily lives of ordinary Lao villagers. Up to a third of the bombs dropped over 40 years ago did not explode on impact. An estimated 800,000 volatile, decaying cluster bombs continue to contaminate fields, forests, and villages across Laos. Farmers must risk deadly explosions every day to plant food for their families, and dozens of children every year are killed or maimed by playing or tampering with the small, toy-like cluster bombs. Before we can truly turn our eyes to the future of U.S.-Lao relations, we must resolve this destructive legacy of the past.

In 2010, I returned to Southeast Asia not as a soldier, but as Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, and the Global Environment and the leader of a Congressional delegation to Southeast Asia.  My colleagues and I learned first-hand the impact that these bombs continue to have on the lives of innocent people — people who are not and never were at war with us. When I returned, deeply affected by the suffering I had seen, I held the first-ever Congressional hearing on the Lao UXO crisis. Today I join the U.S. non-profit Legacies of War in calling on Secretary Clinton to make clearing Laos of U.S. bombs a high priority in the region by committing at least $10 million per year over the next decade, or more. The scale of contamination is vast, and Laos will never be able to reach its full potential without clearing land for agriculture and development. But this is a man-made problem with a man-made solution — with her visit, Secretary Clinton has the opportunity to summon the necessary political will to help Laos end this legacy of war and allow a new legacy of peace to begin. Not only does it make sense to help build strong relations with an important ASEAN ally — it is also the right thing to do.

The Honorable Eni F.H. Faleomavaega is the former Chairman and current Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific.

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