Virgil Wiebe Statement

Legacies of War: Unexploded Ordnance in Laos

Virgil Wiebe
Member of the Board, Mines Advisory Group (MAG) America

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

Washington, DC — April 22, 2010


Thank you, Mr. Chairman and members of the subcommittee. It is an honor to appear before you today, along with my colleagues from Legacies of War and the Humpty Dumpty Institute, to discuss the important issue of unexploded ordnance in Laos.

The Mines Advisory Group, better known as MAG, is an international humanitarian organization that saves lives and builds future by destroying weapons in conflict-affected countries. MAG is currently working in 17 countries across the globe, helping communities to escape the poverty and devastation caused by conflict. I serve on the board of MAG’s US partner, MAG America.

In 1994, MAG established operations in Laos in cooperation with the Mennonite Central Committee and the Lao National Committee for Social and Veterans Affairs. MAG thus became the first international NGO to begin clearing the country of its extensive UXO contamination. As we’ve heard from preceding testimony, Laos is one of the most heavily UXO contaminated countries in the world. Figures on the number of bombs that were dropped and failed to detonate in Laos can be disputed, and in fact we do not know how many items of UXO remain littered across the country today. A thorough survey of the whole country has never been completed and much of the land along the eastern border is densely forested. Regulatory Authority (NRA) in Laos is currently addressing this shortcoming by developing a national contamination database, and a clearer picture of the remaining amount of UXO will be available in the not too distant future.

The point that is indisputable and most important to note, however, is that serious levels of UXO contamination in Laos continue to have an extremely detrimental and damaging impact on the country’s people, its economy, and its future. Widespread contamination restricts economic growth by limiting the population’s ability to grow cash crops, thereby forcing many individuals and families into subsistence farming. Those efforts at subsistence farming are themselves hampered by the presence of unexploded ordnance. Regulatory Authority (NRA) in Laos is currently addressing this shortcoming by developing a national contamination database, and a clearer picture of the remaining amount of UXO will be available in the not too distant future.

The point that is indisputable and most important to note, however, is that serious levels of UXO contamination in Laos continue to have an extremely detrimental and damaging impact on the country’s people, its economy, and its future. Widespread contamination restricts economic growth by limiting the population’s ability to grow cash crops, thereby forcing many individuals and families into subsistence farming. Those efforts at subsistence farming are themselves hampered by the presence of unexploded ordnance.

Since the inception of MAG’s program in 1994, our approach has not focused solely on finding and destroying UXO and cluster munitions. Rather, MAG has seen its clearance activities as the first step in relieving the very problems I’ve just mentioned. Currently MAG operates in Khammouane and Xieng Khoaung Provinces, two of the most contaminated provinces in the country, where our goal is to alleviate poverty through safe and effective UXO clearance. MAG achieves this by linking its activities and strategies to the Lao National Growth and Poverty Eradication Strategy. UXO clearance is one of the three poverty-related programs outlined in this national strategy, and MAG is committed to achieving the clearance targets and priorities set forth in the government’s plan. MAG also partners with and clears land in support of development agencies, such as the World Food Program, World Vision and the Lao Red Cross. By linking directly with development projects, MAG contributes to improved food security and provides access to basic services and infrastructure to some of the poorest, most marginalized communities in Laos. This integrated approach ensures that our grassroots interventions make an impact not only for our beneficiary communities, but also at the regional and national level.

An impact assessment that MAG completed in 2009 has proven that MAG’s work results in much more than cleared land. 63% of village groups interviewed in Khammouane and 83% in Xieng Khouang reported increased yield in productivity following clearance conducted by MAG. Some households reported that they could now plow their land more deeply, because they were confident that they would not be injured as a result, again increasing agricultural productivity. As a result of increased crop yield, approximately 3 out of 4 respondents said that their household income had increased.

In addition to eradicating poverty, MAG’s work was proven to improve people’s sense of security and self respect. By removing a sense of risk and hopelessness associated with UXO contamination, 97% of people interviewed in Khammouane and 94% in Xiang Khouang reported feeling a restored sense of pride and a greater feeling of safety and security for themselves and their family.

MAG’s program in Laos ‘currently employs 235 individuals, 229 of which are national staff members. By employing individuals from the local community, MAG builds a sustainable capacity and empowers Laotians to play a key role in their recovery from conflict. We actively recruit women and individuals who have been disabled from UXO accidents, as they are too often the most marginalized members of their community. MAG has been able to achieve these results thanks to support from its donors, including the US Department of State’s Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement, the UK’s Department of International Development, the European Union, Ausaid and World Vision. Ongoing support from the State Department has resulting in the destruction of over 30,000 items of UXO and over 2,000,000 square meters of land were cleared for agricultural land, infrastructure development, access to water, and schools in 2008-2009 in a project funded by USDA and the Humpty Dumpty Institute.

Unfortunately, the investment (or, perhaps put more aptly, the disinvestment) made in contaminating Laos has far outweighed the investment made in cleaning it up. The UXO clearance assets currently deployed by MAG and other operators are not adequate to tackle the extensive challenge presented by such widespread contamination. With limited resources, MAG focuses on the poorest, most threatened communities and clearing enough land to enable them to grow crops and have a sustainable food source year round. Additional support would enable MAG and other organizations to scale-up their operations to address these urgent cases more quickly, and then tackle other unmet demands such as clearance of land for larger scale farming, commerce, and trade, thereby increasing the multiplier effect of clearance on poverty eradication.

In closing, I would like to thank the US Government, in particular the Department of State’s Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement, for its ongoing support to MAG’s Laos program. I would also like to urge the US government to provide additional funding for UXO clearance in Laos. Without increased support, the men, women, and children of Lao will continue to be killed, injured, and impoverished by the legacy of our secret war.


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.

[Not a valid template]

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)


Events

» 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.

Bombies
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
theresa@intermediaarts.org

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.