Hillary Clinton made a historic visit to Laos on Wednesday, becoming the first US Secretary of State to travel to the Southeast Asian country since John Foster Dulles in 1955.
While there, Clinton confronted the legacy of US atrocities committed during the Vietnam War, actions which are still killing and maiming Laotians to this very day.
The BBC reports that Clinton met with Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong and Foreign Minister Thongloun Sisoulith in Vientiane, the capital, as part of a weeklong diplomatic tour of the region.
During the Vietnam War, the United States dropped more than 2 million tons of bombs on tiny, landlocked Laos, a nation populated mainly by subsistence farmers. The country, which was allied with communist North Vietnam and located along the North Vietnamese supply lines that snaked down to South Vietnam and Cambodia, was subjected to the heaviest bombing in human history.
More bombs fell on Laos than on Germany and Japan combined during World War II. Tens of millions of cluster bombs, some the size of golf balls, were dropped by US warplanes, about a third of which failed to detonate. This massive arsenal of unexploded ordnance is literally millions of tiny ticking time bombs, and children are particularly attracted to the brightly-colored bomblets.
Over 20,000 Laotians, many of them children, have been killed or horribly maimed by unexploded ordnance since the American bombing stopped in 1973.
The damage done by the unprecedented, ferocious US bombing has caused untold human, agricultural, environmental and economic damage. Washington paid Laos about $9 million this year to help clean up unexploded ordnance, a small but appreciated gesture in the impoverished nation. Some $47 million has been spent since 1997, but Legacies of War, a Washington-based group, says that only about 1 percent of the contaminated lands have been cleared of bombs
The Telegraph reports that Clinton visited a US-funded prosthetics center where she met with Phongsavath Souliyalat, a young man who lost both of his hands and his sight to an unexploded cluster bomb on his 16th birthday
“We have to do more,” Clinton told him. “That’s one of the reasons I wanted to come here today, so we can tell more people about the work that we should be doing together.”
The US and Laos also agreed to “improve and further facilitate the accounting operations for American personnel still missing from the Indochina War era,” a statement said.
The two countries also discussed Laos’ impending entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) as well as the controversial Xayaburi Dam, a project that is threatening natural ecosystems and mass dislocation. It has also caused regional tensions with Laos’ neighbors Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand.
Clinton’s Asia trip is part of a broader refocusing of US foreign policy towards Asia, which is well on its way to becoming the center of the world’s economy. It is also a reaction to China’s growing economic, political and military clout.
“My trip reflects a strategic priority of American foreign policy today,” Clinton declared in Mongolia earlier this week. “The United States is making substantially increased investments– diplomatic, economic, strategic and otherwise– in this part of the world. It’s what we call our pivot towards Asia.”