Robert Keeley Statement

Legacies of War: Unexploded Ordnance in Laos

Robert Keeley
Country Program Manager for Laos, The Humpty Dumpty Institute

Statement Before the House Foreign Affairs Committee Subcommittee
on Asia, the Pacific and the Global Environment

Washington, DC — April 22, 2010

A. UXO Sector Evaluation Lao PDR, June-July 2008, Final Report, Robert Griffin, Robert Keeley, Phetdavanh Sayyasouk, July 2008
B. The Economics of Landmine Clearance, Robert Keeley,, 2006.

Q. What is the current scope of the Unexploded Ordnance problem in Laos?

Laos has the distinction of being, per capita, the most heavily bombed nation in the world. During the second Indochina conflict, Laos was the scene of extensive ground battles and intense aerial bombardment. More than half a million bombing missions were carried out between the years 1964 to 1973, during which more than two million tons of explosive ordnance was dropped. This includes approximately 270 million anti-personnel cluster munition bomblets or “bombies” released from cluster bombs, becoming in effect, de facto anti-personnel land mines. Apart from direct military activities, Laos also suffered from being used as a free drop zone where military planes were free to unload over Lao territory any unused ordnance that remained from air strikes over Vietnam or northern Laos. Over many years there has been an average of around 300 casualties per year from UXO in Laos1.

Based on historical ‘bomb damage assessment’ conducted by the Luftwaffe in Spain after the Spanish Civil War, bomb disposal personnel commonly use a 10% ‘rule of thumb’ to estimate time number of bombs (or other explosive ordnance) that will remain unexploded alter being dropped or fired. This is an empirical estimate of the average failure rate in operations, which is different to that achieved in testing in perfect conditions. Some sources place the failure rate of submunitions even higher. Whilst unexploded large aircraft bombs present a localised, spot hazard, cluster munitions contaminate an area within their ‘footprint’. Based on bombing data made available by the US government and using an average radius of 500m for each bombing point, the total extent of the contaminated area is approximately 500,000 Hectares or 1,930 square miles (see Reference A for details of this calculation). However, as will be discussed below, not all of this contamination poses a significant impact.

Q. The extent to which UXO prevents Laos developing its economy more fully?

The UXO present a significant physical impediment on the development of the Laotian economy. This can be measured in two ways. Firstly, given that most of the current economy is based on agricultural production, and rice in particular, it is possible to measure the amount of land not in production that could be put into production, and use the foregone value of the agricultural production in that land as a measure of the damage to the economy. I will address this in more detail below. Secondly, where there are infrastructure projects the cost of the UXO clearance acts as a ‘tax on the cost of the project, at a rate of approximately 30-40 cents per square metre of surface area. In some infrastructure projects, such as a number of hydro-electric power plant construction projects, this is borne as a line item charge to the total project budget.

In some other economic endeavours, especially those borne by the private sector, these costs can act as a barrier to entry and can in many cases result in the project not being carried out at all. For example, in agri-business projects such as managed forestry or the growing of medicinal plants, the cost of the UXO clearance might dissuade a potential investor from engaging in the project in the first place. It is almost impossible to measure the impact of such decisions as we simply don’t know how many people have decided not to invest. Of course, at a village level many of the poorest cannot afford a choice and farm land they know to be contaminated; sometimes they or their children even deliberately seek out UXO for their scrap metal value. Many of the 300 annual casualties are caused in this way.

Q. Any impediments which UXO places on enhanced US-Lao relations?

As a non-American citizen working in Laos I observe that relations between the US Embassy and the Lao government appear to be cordial. I know that the US Embassy takes the UXO issue very seriously.

Q. Funding and other resources that the United States has committed to addressing the problem

I am not in a position to answer this question fully. I would refer you to the State Department’s office for Weapons Removal and Abatement for a fuller assessment of full US contributions so far. However, I can tell you about my current project: In addition to State Department Funding, the United States Department of Agriculture has made a substantial contribution toward easing this problem through its well known McGovern-Dole Food for Education Program. Over the course of three years (2006, 2008 and 2010) the organization I work for, the Humpty Damply Institute (HDI), has received a total of $9 million for a school feeding program now servicing up to 20,000 children every day in 150 villages in three of the most remote provinces in central Laos. Of the $9 million total, slightly over $3 million has and will be used to remove unexploded ordnance (UXO) and around school sites and from agricultural land in these 150 villages.

Q. Plans for future US contributions

Again, I am not in a position to answer this.

Q. How much in terms of total funding, manpower and other resources it would take to largely rid the country of its UXO problem.

One could simply answer this question by multiplying the total surface area of the potentially contaminated area by the average aggregated cost of clearance per square metre. This would come to approximately $1.9 billion. Indeed, I believe a figure of this magnitude has been floated recently in this regard. However I do not believe it is necessary to clear all this area to substantially reduce the impact. I believe a realistic answer to be far lower than this. I will explain my findings below.

In the answer to the first question I explained how we have previously calculated the total extent of the UXO contamination. In Chapter Three of the 2008 evaluation report we also attempted to measure the impact of this contamination. In principle it is possible to use standard environmental economic principles to determine the point where the cost of clearing the UXO equals the benefit of that clearance. In this case, as mentioned above, this can be done using the value of the agricultural output of the decontaminated land as the benchmark. In any such calculations one must make a number of assumptions and work within the time and resources available for the study, and in this case we looked at four possible scenarios, with alternative economic assumptions modelled in each case. The academic background for these calculations was researched in my PhD thesis at Reference B and has been tested in Afghanistan, Angola and Cambodia. As far as I know there have only been two attempts to quantify the problem in Laos, both during evaluations arranged by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in 2002, and 2008. I was responsible for both sets of calculations.

In Laos in 2008 we concentrated on the 47 poorest districts (which have already been identified as in need of special development by the Laotian government) and on the potential agricultural area within the proportion of the 500,000 Ha of contaminated land in those districts. This reduced the area to be cleared to just under 78,000 Ha (301 square miles). In discussion with stakeholders what was referred to as “Option B” became the most favoured option, as a compromise between the other alternatives measured in the process (although all of these alternatives are very conservative when compared to the cost of full clearance). In Option B, which assumes that some land can be released by survey and analytical processes, the area to be cleared in order to substantially reduce the impact of the contamination would be only approximately 22,000 Ha (84 square miles). Based on an average budget of approximately 12,500,000 per year over 16 years, the total budget would be just over $138,000,000. A summary of the calculations of all of the four options is included at Figure I below. Spending more money per year would allow the problem to be dealt with earlier.

This still sounds like a lot of money, however, this needs to be put in context. Firstly, it is only, at today’s prices and techniques, approximately 7.25% of the total cost of clearing all of the areas believed to be potentially contaminated with UXO; this is achievable by concentrating on the highest priority areas and using survey techniques to release some of the land. Secondly, some money is already being donated, by the US and a number of other donors2. The problem is that the funding is insufficient and tends to be short-term, preventing optimum planning. Thirdly, it is a small cost compared to other environmental disasters. The cost of cleaning tip after the Exxon Valdez was estimated at some $2 billion, not including the cost of the litigation or the punitive damages awarded3.

I am not suggesting that the money is simply handed over in a cheque. It might be possible to establish some sort of investment mechanism to generate interest that could help pay for the clearance. There is also a need to establish a robust management mechanism to ensure that the funds are targeted effectively and efficiently.

It should also be noted that there are three main outputs in mine action; area clearance, as discussed here in detail, is the most expensive, but there is also a quantifiable case for spending money on mobile Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) teams (sometimes referred to as “bomb squads”) to respond to reports of isolated UXO, including unexploded large aircraft bombs, and to focussed public health awareness programs which provide advice on what to do when people find bombs, including contact details for the mobile teams mentioned above (commonly called “mine risk education”). There is also a need for a sustained capacity to be left behind once the main tasks are finished. However, if the requirement was fully funded, it should be possible to cover the cost of these activities from this budget.

There is also a related need to provide medical and economic support to the casualties of UXO. This activity, commonly referred to as ‘mine victim assistance’ is sometimes a poor relation to the more technical mine action activities and there has been little quantitative work done to measure the impact of landmine and UXO contamination on the medical and social service sectors of contaminated countries. More quantitative research is needed to determine the extent of this need.

There is a sound, quantitative, economic argument for increasing the budget for the UXO sector in Laos, making longer term commitments so that investments can be made in new technology and equipment, and improving resource allocation decisions to ensure that any resources provided are spent effectively and efficiently. As stated above, the benefit of such improved funding can be measured and predicted. However, it must be said in defence of the office for Weapons Removal and Abatement that they already support a number of programs in many different countries; simply reallocating their existing budget from other countries to increase funding in Laos is simply “robbing Peter to pay Paul”. If I could, I would ask for additional funding to be found so that this problem can be ameliorated without prejudice to the other projects already supported through the good work of the US Department of State.

Figure 1. Extract from Reference A.

Evaluation of UXO Sector in Laos June-July 2008

Table 4: Summary of findings from CBA
Ser Option Definition Area (Ha) Cost Time Required Remarks
Annual Total
(a) (b) (c) (d) (e) (f) (g) (i)
1 Option A Clearance of all potential Paddy and all potential Upland Rice 77,587 8,584,847 299,769,882 35
2 Option B Clearance of all potential Paddy and 20% of all potential Upland Rice with the remaining 80% of potential upland rice being released by technical survey 21,860 12,571,443 138,265,870 18 55,728 Ha of Upland rice area also released by cancellation
3 Option C Clearance of all potential Paddy and highest quality potential Upland Rice 33,406 8,056,728 129,067,858 18
4 Option D Clearance of all potential Paddy and 20% of highest quality potential Upland Rice with the remaining 80% of potential highest quality upland rice being released by technical survey 13,023 10,000,724 70,005,068 7 20,382 Ha of Upland rice area also released by cancellation

Note: assumptions in the modeling include:

  • The availability of 26 area clearance teams
  • Each clearance team is able to clear 8 Ha/month, working over an 11 month year
  • The total cost of each square metre is $0.38/m2 based on full accounting using the MMAC Model version 1.3 (a copy of this model is available from the Evaluation Team).

Griffin, Keeley and Sayyasouk Page 21

  1. This is compiled from a number of documentary sources available in the UXO sector in Laos. in particular the Lao National Regulatory Authority for UXO, and the UXO Lao websites ar recommended. See and
  2. According to the National Regulatory Authority UXO/Mine Action Sector in Lao PDR UXO Sector Annual Report for 2007, approximately $12 million was provided for humanitarian clearance and related activities from all donors. However, it is understood that funding levels have since decreased.
  3. http://en.wikipedia.orwiki/Exxon_ValdezoilspilI

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 (, 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 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

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.