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

For full text, please download the attachment.

Speaker & Film Screening in Boston Area

“The Bombing of Laos and the Continuing Tragedy of Cluster Bombs”

Forbush Memorial Library Westminster, MA January 20, 2010, 6-8PM

Walt Haney, Forbush Library Trustee and longtime resident of Westminster, will give a talk on “The Bombing of Laos and the Continuing Tragedy of Cluster Bombs.”

Haney spent more than three years in Laos, 1968-71 and 1975. In 1970 and 1971, he carried out two surveys of Lao refugees that helped document the widespread bombing of civilians in Laos. Reports on these surveys were both published in reports by the U.S. Senate.

Haney is also author of an analysis of U.S. involvement in Laos from 1950 to 1970. This analysis was published in Chomsky, N. and H. Zinn (Eds.) The Gravel Edition, The Pentagon Papers, Vol. V: Critical Essays (Boston: Beacon Press, 1972, pp. 248-293). Finally, Haney will describe his involvement with Legacies of War (http://legaciesofwar.org), a group organized to bring attention to the continuing tragedy of cluster bombs, not just in Laos but also in other war-torn countries around the world.

Following Haney’s remarks, there will be a showing of the award-winning film “Bombies” and a discussion. Light refreshments will be served. The lecture and film-showing are open to the public at no charge, but seating is limited.

National Traveling Exhibition Midwest Premiere in Minneapolis

Lao Assistance Center, Pangea World Theater and Intermedia Arts present

Legacies of War: National Traveling Exhibition and Community Programs

Curated by local artist Malichansouk Kouanchao, Bush Artist Fellow

Presented in conjunction with the Refugee Nation Touring Performance.

The Legacies of War National Traveling Exhibition tells the story of the U.S. secret bombing in Laos- a forgotten chapter in U.S. history – through the voices of villagers from Laos and the Lao diaspora at large.

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Opening Night Reception – September 30, 2010

In the 1960s and 1970s, when due to the bombing, Lao civilians became refugees of “The Secret War,” and had no language or tools to communicate with the outside world about their experiences except through a series of crude, hand-drawn sketches shown to visiting foreigners. But this art was enough to provoke questions that ultimately led to a global awareness of what was happening during the CIA’s covert war in Laos, and these sketches contributed to shaping the destiny of over 400,000 Laotians and Hmong in the United States today.

The National Traveling Exhibition has traveled to ten U.S. cities and to Dublin, Ireland. Its Midwest debut will take place at Intermedia Arts on September 30, 2010 (Special Opening Reception at 6:30pm) and run through October 24 with film screenings, community workshops and discussions throughout the month.

Artwork: Malichansouk Kouanchao

Legacies of War is presented in conjunction with the Refugee Nation National Traveling Performance, a collection of oral histories that reveals connections between American and Southeast Asian history, and the unique challenges faced by political refugees and their American children. It gives voice to the Lao Diaspora – often excluded from the American experience. Refugee Nation is about a young generation struggling to understand their history and the silence of an elder generation still healing from the traumas of war.

This project is made possible in part by support from Arts Midwest, the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council, the Minnesota State Arts Board, and the Asian Pacific Endowment. Refugee Nation is a part of Intermedia Arts’ Catalyst Series.

Intermedia Arts is located at 2822 Lyndale Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN 55408 (map)


» Exhibition

National Traveling Exhibition
September 30, 2010 – October 24, 2010
Daily 12pm-5pm
$3 suggested donation

Opening Reception
September 30, 2010 @ 6:30pm-8:30pm – FREE
Reception will include a blessing ceremony, guest speakers and community gathering.

» Performances

Refugee Nation
October 8-10, Friday – Sunday @ 7:30pm
October 14-17, Thursday – Sunday @ 7:30pm
*Post performance discussions October 9, 15 & 16
Tickets: $10 (advance, students, seniors); $12 (door)
Click here to purchase tickets.

» Workshops & Discussions

Community Art Workshop – Express Yourself
October 2, 2010 @ 1pm-4pm – FREE
Student Day
Two-part workshop: In Tapestry of Hope: Weaving a Bomb Free Future, participants will create art pieces to include in an international art exhibition to debut in Vientiane, Laos in November. In the Refugee Nation workshop, participants will engage in discussions and exercises about identity and community.

Community Discussion – Gen X, Gen Y and Gen G (as in RefuGee)
October 13, 2010 @ 12:30pm – FREE
Bring your lunch for this roundtable intergenerational discussion following the Refugee Nation matinee.

» Film Screenings

Bomb Harvest
October 12, 2010 @ 7pm
$5 suggested donation
Laos: The most bombed country, per capita, on the planet. A bomb disposal specialist has to train a new young “big bomb” team to deal with bombs left from the US “Secret War”, but meanwhile, the local children are out hunting for bomb scrap metal. Post screening discussion with the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) and community members.

October 19, 2010 @ 7pm
$5 suggested donation
Award-winning film portrays the aftermath of the carpet bombing of Laos with made-in-Minnesota cluster bombs and includes local footage of demonstrations at Honeywell and Alliant Techsystems (ATK).
Special guest speaker Marv Davidov, featured in the film as the founder of the MN-based Honeywell Project to end weapons manufacturing during the Vietnam War.

All events held at:
Intermedia Arts
2822 Lyndale Avenue South
Minneapolis, MN 55408 (map)

For more information, visit www.intermediaarts.org or call (612) 871-4444.

Media Contact

Theresa Sweetland
Executive/Artistic Director, Intermedia Arts
(612) 874-2813

Photo/Interview Opportunities

Digital photos, audio, video, interview and photo opportunities are available upon request.

About the Presenters

  • Lao Assistance Center of Minnesota

    Minnesota has the third largest Laotian community in the US with 25,000 residents, many living in Hennepin County and particularly North Minneapolis. Many first arrived in the US as refugees in the early 1980s to rebuild to their lives. Many Lao in Minnesota received international recognition and awards for their art and community activism, and recently convened the first national Lao American Writers Summit. The Lao Assistance Center was established in 1983 with a mission to help Lao families meet their basic needs and to preserve their culture and traditions.

  • Pangea World Theater

    Pangea World Theater begins from the fundamental paradigm of diversity in the world. Our work expresses this reality and our organization advances this possibility consciously. Since its inception in 1995, Pangea’s goals have included creating a new literature with stories from different communities for theater, changing our methods of auditioning in order to include artists from diverse communities who are not trained in the traditional western methods of the audition process, and creating new possibilities and new aesthetic realities for a more diverse audience. As the community of the Twin Cities has become increasingly diverse with the influx of new immigrants, Pangea has actively sought individuals from these communities to be part of our artistic and advisory team.

  • Intermedia Arts

    As Minnesota’s premier multidisciplinary, multicultural arts center, Intermedia Arts builds understanding among people by catalyzing and inspiring artists and audiences to make changes in their lives and communities. We are a nationally recognized leader in empowering artists and community leaders to use arts-based approaches to solve community issues. From graffiti art to digital technology to performance art to spoken word, we work from the community up to unearth and enliven new and emerging artists and art forms while challenging and exploring the role of art in our lives. By stimulating civic dialogue and giving voice to the issues and experiences of underrepresented communities locally, nationally and internationally, we contribute to a stronger, healthier society.

  • The Catalyst Series

    Intermedia Arts’ Catalyst Series is a new program dedicated to collaborating with and providing support for artists, arts groups and organizations working as catalysts for change in their communities. The Catalyst Series is designed to engage audiences by provoking new performing, visual, literary, multimedia and film presentations that spark dialogue and inspire social change. Our goal is to provide artists, arts groups and arts organizations with the resources necessary to focus on their creative process, connect with their communities, advance their career, market their work, and develop new audiences.

First Meeting of States Parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions (1MSP)

Legacies of War is attending the First Meeting of States Parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions (1MSP) in Vientiane, Lao PDR. Leading up to the meeting, we will be traveling around Laos and attending other events. We will be documenting our entire trip and experiences with a microsite: Legacies of War @ 1MSP. Check it for daily updates.

For more information on this historic meeting, visit http://www.clusterconvention.org/1msp/.

Legacies of War Exhibit in Brooklyn Center, MN

Check out the Legacies of War Exhibit at the Brookdale Library in Brooklyn Center, MN. The exhibit will be there until June 1st.

Association of Asian American Studies Conference, New Orleans

Legacies of War will present Undigested War: Purging Official Narratives of U.S. Wars in Asia with Still Present Past at the Association of Asian American Studies Conference in New Orleans, May 18-21. Click here for more information on the conference.