A Dramatic Effort to Address the Legacy of Bombing in Laos
By Channapha Khamvongsa
In 2014, the U.S. government will provide $12 million—a six-fold increase over the last five years—to clear 40-year-old unexploded ordnance (UXO) in Laos and to support the victims of these bombs.
The funding will support organizations working to improve clearance efficiency, lower casualty rates, and assist 10,000 current victims.
This dramatic spending increase is due in large part to the efforts of Legacies of War, a small advocacy organization founded to raise awareness about the history of the Vietnam War–era bombing of Laos. We work to persuade the U.S. government to take more responsibility for clearing bombs and mines, and to help restore limbs to those harmed.
My own family fled Laos in 1979 for Thailand and eventually settled in the United States. In 2003, I was working as a program associate at the Ford Foundation when I learned about the secret bombing of Laos and its devastating aftermath. One of Ford’s grantees had in its possession historic drawings created by bombing survivors. These drawings inspired me to found Legacies of War in 2004.
Few Americans know that between 1964 and 1973 the United States dropped two million tons of bombs on Laos. On average, that amounts to a bomber dropping a plane-load of bombs every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years.
Laos is considered the most heavily bombed country per capita in history. Thirty percent of the 270 million small cluster bomblets dropped on Laos, a country the size of Minnesota, never exploded. An estimated 80 million live bomblets are still in the ground and at risk of explosion.
The fundamental right of its people to live freely and safely has been at risk daily during the last 40 years. More than 20,000 people have been killed or injured since the end of the bombing, and until recently, casualty rates averaged 300 per year. Of the UXO victims since the bombing, 40 percent have been children.
Until recently, the U.S. State Department had provided a little more than $2 million per year to redress the threat. Based on levels of funding provided at that time, it was expected that Laos might be cleared of UXO in 100 years.
Legacies of War created a focused strategy to build support among key stakeholders including victims, veterans, the Laotian diaspora, and civil society groups. We garnered support from six former U.S. Ambassadors to Laos and engaged the State Department, including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was the first Secretary of State to visit Laos in 57 years.
Legacies of War has helped to lift this issue from obscurity, raising its visibility and facilitating a dialogue to rid Laos of UXO in the next two decades. That goal was unthinkable just a decade ago.
Legacies of War is a grantee of the Open Society Foundations.
Channapha Khamvongsa is executive director of Legacies of War.