Legacies of War: Cluster Bombs in Laos

By Channapha Khamvongsa and Elaine Russell, Critical Asian Studies 41:2 (2009)

ABSTRACT: In this article nongovernmental organization (NGO) workers Channapha Khamvongsa and Elaine Russell discuss the massive illegal U.S. bombing of Laos between 1964 and 1973 and its lingering human, economic, and ecological toll. They survey the history of foreign intervention in Laos, with special emphasis on the cold war–era civil war and U.S. intervention. The authors describe continuing civilian casualties and obstacles to development posed by unexploded ordnance (UXO) in Laos, and detail current efforts for UXO removal. The authors propose a formal reconciliation process between the United States and Laos in which the U.S. government would accept responsibility for the long-term effects of the bombing and the governments would cooperate with NGOs and the United Nations in a transparent process to fund UXO removal.

More than thirty-five years ago the U.S. government inflicted a tragic injustice on the people of Laos, an injustice that has never been fully acknowledged or rectified. The U.S. government funded an illegal, covert bombing campaign that killed tens of thousands of innocent civilians and left the small nation of Laos burdened with a deadly legacy that lives on today. Unexploded ordnance (UXO) contaminates close to half of the country and has killed or maimed thousands of people, while severely hampering efforts to eliminate poverty and hunger. The story of the “secret war” in Laos has long been overshadowed by events in Vietnam and Cambodia. It is time for this story to be told so the suffering can end. It is time for the United States to do, finally, what is morally right and make Laos whole again by fully funding the removal of UXO and providing victim assistance.

Between 1964 and 1973, the United States released 2.1 million tons of ordnance over Laos and on numerous occasions bombed the civilian population1 in direct violation of the Geneva Conventions on war to protect civilians (2) and the 1954 Geneva Accords and 1962 Geneva Agreements that prohibited the presence of foreign military personnel or advisors in neutral Laos. The U.S. military justified the bombings as necessary to counter the illegal presence of North Vietnamese troops in Laos, but the response was vastly disproportionate. At the astonishing rate of one bombing mission every eight minutes, twenty-four hours a day, for nine years, the United States dropped more bombs on Laos than it had dropped on all countries during World War II. U.S. bombing left the tiny nation the most heavily bombed country per capita in the world and resulted in mostly civilian casualties. After the war ended, up to 78 million unexploded cluster bombs and other ordnance remained, posing a constant threat to civilian life.

During the war, in an attempt to stop the Pathet Lao communist insurgency and to interrupt Vietnamese supply lines along the Ho Chi Minh trail (which ran through southeastern Laos), the U.S. military and CIA trained and supplied the Royal Lao Army, recruited Laotian people for covert operations on the ground, and carried out bombing strikes and reconnaissance flights under the guise of civilian contractors delivering humanitarian aid. These activities not only violated the neutrality of Laos but were also conducted without the knowledge or authorization of the U.S. Congress. The secret war in Laos would eventually be exposed during U.S. Senate hearings in 1971, (3) but details did not become known until State Department memorandums were declassified years after the war ended. However, the severity of the bombing was not revealed until President Bill Clinton authorized the release of U.S. military strike data in 2000. U.S. records, recently released under the Freedom of Information Act but not yet reviewed, contain new data that may reveal even higher levels of bombing. CIA records on the war in Laos still remain classified.

In June 2007, a speech made by U.S. State Department official Richard Kidd substantiated the long-term civilian casualties and impacts in Laos. Calling it the “Laos exception,” the U.S. government acknowledged that no other country in the world had suffered the long-term harm from cluster bombs that was inflicted on the people of Laos.(4) However, Kidd’s comments stopped short of suggesting the United States take responsibility for its role in the secret war or that it fully fund the cost of bomb removal.

UXO continues to kill or injure close to three hundred people each year and poses a major impediment to economic development. Laos remains one of the poorest countries in the world. The formal cleanup of cluster bombs and other explosive remnants of war began in 1994, but moves at a snail’s pace: more than 33,669 square miles are contaminated, covering at least 37 percent of the country (50 percent by some estimates), yet at current funding levels only five to six square miles are cleared each year. The lack of sustained attention to the issue has resulted in a lack of political will to expedite removal. U.S. contributions to the effort have been modest at best, due to strained relations between the governments of the United States and Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR) in the past. And the problem of UXO in Laos has received scant media attention, aside from three notable exceptions — the highly acclaimed 2002 documentary film Bombies by Jack Silberman,5 the 2007 Australian film, Bomb Harvest,(6) by Kim Mordaunt and Sylvia Wilczynski, and Mark Eberle’s 2009 film The Most Secret Place on Earth: CIA’s Covert War in Laos.(7)

Recently there has been renewed interest in the issue, as the Laotian diaspora becomes more engaged with its former homeland and recognizes that cluster bombs pose a major obstacle to the safety of the population and economic development in Laos. Additionally, the use of cluster bombs in recent conflicts in the Middle East has triggered awareness of the harm these weapons cause; this has prompted an international effort to ban cluster munitions worldwide. On May 30, 2008, at a gathering in Dublin, Ireland, 107 countries, including Laos, agreed to the text of the Cluster Munitions Convention, banning the use, sale, and stockpiling of cluster munitions and ensuring humanitarian assistance for victims and affected communities. The parties, who met throughout 2007 and 2008, gathered in Oslo, Norway, on 3-4 December 2008, to sign the convention. Under the Bush administration, the United States was not a party to the discussions or negotiations and did not sign the convention.

  1. Branfman, Fred (1971) Documentation of American bombing of civilian targets in Laos. Appendix II. Prepared by Fred Branfman, from Hearings before Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Problems Connected with Refugees and Escapees (Subcommittee of the Committee on War-Related Civilian Problems in Indochina), Part II Laos and Cambodia
  2. Branfman, Fred (1972) Voices from the Plain of Jars: Life under an air war Harper and Row , New York — 1972
  3. Central Intelligence Agency (2007) The world factbook: Laos — Available at http://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/la.html (accessed 9 September 2007)
  4. Evans, Grant (2002) A short history of Laos: The land in between Allen and Unwin, Crows Nest, Australia
  5. Handicap International (May 2007) Circle of impact: The fatal footprint of cluster munitions on people and communities. — Available at www.handicapinterational.be (accessed 2 June 2007)
  6. Handicap International Belgium (1997) Living with UXO: Final report on the national survey on the socio-economic impact of UXO in Lao PDR Handicap International Belgium , Brussels
  7. Haney, Walt (1971) A survey of civilian casualties among refugees from the Plain of Jars, Laos. Testimony before the Subcommittee to Investigate Problems Connected with Refugees and Escapees of the Committee on the Judiciary United State Senate
  8. Haney, Walt Chomsky, Noam and Zinn, Howard (eds) (1972) The Pentagon Papers and the United States involvement in Laos. The Pentagon Papers, Gravel edition: Critical essays 5, Beacon Press , Boston

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