Hillary Clinton returned to the scene of the one of the darkest episodes of US foreign policy when she visited Laos and saw first-hand the aftermath of America’s “secret war” in which around two million tonnes of bombs were dropped on the country.
Ms Clinton was the first US Secretary of State to visit the Southeast Asian nation since 1955 and she vowed Washington would do more to help victims, still suffering today from the deadly legacy of America’s Cold War actions.
At a centre for victims still being maimed by decades-old ordinance, Ms Clinton was introduced to a young man called Phongsavath Souliylath. The 20-year-old lost both his hands and his eyesight after he picked up piece of a cluster bomb on his 16th birthday and it blew up in his face. “I would like to see all governments clear the bombs together and help the survivors,” the man, who works at the Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise in Vientiane, told Ms Clinton, according to the Agence France-Presse. In faltering English, he continued: “So many survivors without help. Their life is very, very hard.”
The Secretary of State replied: “I think you are absolutely right. We have to do more and that’s one of the reasons I wanted to come today so that we can tell more people about the work we should be doing together.”
Ms Clinton’s four-hour visit, on route Cambodia for a meeting of foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, was the first of its kind since John Foster Dulles visited in 1955. On that occasion, his plane circled the airport until a buffalo could be cleared from the runway.
Ms Clinton described her visit as a “painful reminder of the legacy of the Vietnam War era” and said that in Laos the past is “always with us”.
Between 1964 and 1975, the US Air Force carried out 580,000 bombing raids over Laos as part of a secret operation to cut off supply routes for North Vietnamese forces. Per capita of the population, it is the heaviest bombed place on earth and around 30 per cent of the ordinance remains unexploded.
Every bomb contained up to 600 smaller bomblets, and since the end of the war in 1975 an estimated 50,000 people have been killed by them. Many of the victims are children. Even today, the US has not signed a convention against using such munitions, despite international campaigns against their deployment.
Reports say the US has already spent around £43m to help Laos clear unexploded ordnance and will spend a further £9m this year. Ms Clinton said some 23,000 hectares of area had been made safe.
Ms Clinton, who is seeking to counter growing Chinese influence in the region, also discussed environmental concerns about dam projects on the Mekong river and investment opportunities when she met with the Communist government’s prime minister and foreign minister. Several members of the ruling body of the one-party state are former members of the Pathet Lao guerrilla group that supported North Vietnam against the US.
The US bombing of Laos and Cambodia was deliberately shielded from public view, a cover-up featured in William Shawcross’s 1979 expose Sideshow. An official record of the bombing campaign was only declassified by then President Bill Clinton in 2000.
Dr John Prados of the National Security Archive, a unit of George Washington University in Washington DC, said last night that the US bombing campaign in Southeast Asia had made little impact on public discourse. “I think a feature of that is the success the government officials had in keeping it secret,’ he said. “If Americans knew a little more about what happened in Laos I think there would be more concern about what happened under the US’s auspices.”