Between 1964 and 1973, in an effort to prevent the movement of supplies, armaments and North Vietnamese fighters across neighboring territories and into Vietnam, the U.S. Air Force dropped over 270 million cluster bombs on Vietnam’s western neighbor, Laos. As a result, Laos has the grim distinction of being, per capita, the world’s most bombed country.
Today, most of the country’s 17 provinces remain contaminated with unexploded ordnance, or UXO, wrote U.S. Air Force Major General Michael Rothstein, who recently served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Plans, Programs, and Operations in the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs. “Because many of the bombs that were dropped did not explode immediately as intended, UXO has killed or injured thousands of Laotians. While landmines were also laid in Laos during the Indochina Wars of the 1960s and 1970s, UXO account for the bulk of explosive hazard contamination.”
Landmines and unexploded munitions render millions of hectares of land unusable, preventing farmers from tending their fields. They make travel dangerous because explosives lie hidden in pepper fields, meadows and forests, and a misstep could be deadly.
Nonetheless, as time goes by, population growth in Laos has increased demands to put UXO-contaminated land into productive use, which of course means an increased risk of injuries and deaths.
The government is committed to removing the UXO threat but progress has been slow. One of the reasons is that, while many local surveys have been conducted over the years, Laos has lacked a comprehensive national survey of UXO contamination.
That is why today, in addition to funding mine clearance in Laos, the United States is partnering with Laos on just such a survey.
“This new project will allow us to better identify areas of the country with the greatest concentrations of UXO risk, improving the effectiveness of clearance operations,” wrote General Michael Rothstein.
Years of work remain ahead, but clearly, this work is more important than ever. “Not only does it address a wartime legacy, but it is also a smart investment in a brighter future for Laos, its neighbors, and ultimately for U.S. diplomatic and security partnerships in the region.”