Decades after U.S. planes waged hundreds of thousands of bombing runs over Laos, President Barack Obama acknowledged that secret war and pledged $90 million in additional aid on Tuesday to held clear unexploded bombs still strew across the country.
“Given our history here, the U.S. has a moral obligation to help Laos heal,” said Obama, the first U.S. president to visit this struggling southeast nation. “The spirit of reconciliation is what brings me here today.”
From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. carried out 580,000 bombing missions in Laos, dropping more than 270 million cluster bombs in a CIA-led campaign as part of the expanding regional battles from neighboring Vietnam, according to the National Regulatory Authority for unexploded UXO/Mine Action in Laos.
Many of the bombings sought to cut off supplies to Vietnam, even though officially Laos was neutral in the Vietnam War.
Today, roughly 80 million unexploded bombs remain and continue killing and permanently maiming dozens each year – many of them children.
In recent years, U.S. aid toward removing those bombs has slowly increased, and deaths have decreased from 300 a year to fewer than 50. Tuesday’s announcement doubled the current U.S. funding.
In return, leaders in Laos said they would step up efforts to recover remains and missing American soldiers.
Obama was just one of many leaders in the Laotian capital for the meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, whose members take turn hosting. As this year’s chair, the thee-day gathering has thrust Laos into the spotlight – a still relatively undeveloped nation whose nominally communist government struggles with corruption, repression and economic growth.
Landlocked Laos is surrounded on all sides by more powerful neighbors who have long exploited its resources and vied for influence. In the north, China has staked its claims on land and business. In the east, Vietnam has been razing forests for years for lumber. And in the west, Thai leaders often takes a paternalistic attitude to their Laotian counterparts and have been pushing for control over the Mekong river that divides them.
Laos’s economy has been stagnant and undeveloped for many years, and relies heavily on foreign aid. Corruption runs rampant in the government and private sector.
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · William Wan