U.S.-Lao Partnership Works to Address Legacies of War

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A UXO Lao team in Xieng Khouang Province demonstrates an unexploded ordnance (UXO) clearance technique for the author.
A UXO Lao team in Xieng Khouang Province demonstrates an unexploded ordnance (UXO) clearance technique for the author.

U.S.-Lao Partnership Works to Address Legacies of War

In many communities across Southeast Asia, landmines and unexploded ordnance (UXO), such as bombs, artillery shells, and other munitions left behind from past conflicts, continue to kill and injure people as they go about their daily lives. While some of these hidden hazards date as far back as the Second World War, many can be traced back to U.S. air operations during the war in Vietnam, which also targeted bordering areas in neighboring Laos and Cambodia. I recently visited the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, where I saw first-hand how the United States is partnering with Laos on UXO survey and clearance to save lives.  

According to the United Nations Department of Humanitarian Affairs, Laos is the most heavily bombed country per capita in the world. During the 1960s, more than 2.5 million tons of U.S. munitions were dropped in Laos, mainly in rural, unpopulated “drop zones” along its border with Vietnam. Today, the majority of the country’s 17 provinces remain contaminated with UXO. 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. So prevalent are the small round unexploded cluster munitions, they have come to be known by all Laotians as “bombies.” Population growth in rural areas has increased demands to put UXO-contaminated land into productive use. This demand for land has increased the risk of injuries and deaths from these explosive hazards as local residents clear land for farming, dig wells, gather scrap metal, and build new homes and roads.    

A UXO Lao team member carefully examines a suspected hazardous area.

From Vientiane, I traveled to Xieng Khouang Province in the country’s northeast, along with U.S. Ambassador Rena Bitter, Lao National Regulatory Authority Director Phoukhieo Chanthasomboune, representatives from UXO Lao (the country’s national UXO clearance organization), as well as the non-governmental organizations Danish Church Aid, the HALO Trust, Mines Advisory Group, and Norwegian People’s Aid. Together, we watched UXO Lao teams in action and reviewed progress on the implementation of a national Cluster Munition Remnant Survey that the U.S. Government and its international partners will support through expanded funding announced last year. 

While many local surveys have been conducted over the years, 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. We also discussed several key areas where we can work even better together, such as expanding the number of local clearance teams operated by UXO Lao. A lot of work remains for many years ahead, but I left Laos strongly believing that 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.  

The author, joined by Ambassador Bitter and others, visits a UXO survey site in Xieng Khouang Province.

Since 1993, the United States has invested more than $2.8 billion in more than 100 countries around the world to reduce the harmful worldwide effects of at-risk, illicitly proliferated, and indiscriminately used conventional weapons of war.To learn more about the United States’ global conventional weapons destruction efforts, please consult our annual report, To Walk the Earth in Safety, and follow us on Twitter @StateDeptPM.

About the Author: Major General Michael D. Rothstein, United States Air Force, serves as the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Plans, Programs, and Operations in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs.