Barack Obama, the first sitting US president to visit Laos, acknowledged the secret American bombing campaign there that killed at least tens of thousands of civilians and pledged $90 million in aid to help clear unexploded bombs that have killed or maimed tens of thousands more people since the end of the Vietnam War.
Appearing at the Lao National Cultural Hall in the capital Vientiane on Tuesday, Obama — who traveled to the landlocked country to attend the semiannual Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit — spoke of the immeasurable suffering inflicted on the people of Laos by the United States:
“Over nine years — from 1964 to 1973 — the United States dropped more than two million tons of bombs here in Laos, more than we dropped on Germany and Japan combined during all of World War II. It made Laos, per person, the most heavily bombed country in history. As one Laotian said, the ‘bombs fell like rain.’ Villages and entire valleys were obliterated. The ancient Plain of Jars was devastated. Countless civilians were killed. And that conflict was another reminder that, whatever the cause, whatever our intentions, war inflicts a terrible toll, especially on innocent men, women and children. Today, I stand with you in acknowledging the suffering and sacrifices on all sides of that conflict.”
Obama also admitted that successive US administrations hid the truth about the horrific campaign from the American people:
“At the time, the US government did not acknowledge America’s role. It was a secret war, and for years, the American people did not know. Even now, many Americans are not fully aware of this chapter in our history, and it’s important that we remember today.”
Among the 2.5 million tons of bombs dropped by the US on Laos were as many as 270 million cluster bombs. Land mine and bomb clearing organizations estimate that as many as 75 million of these did not detonate upon impact. Cluster bomblets, some as small as golf balls, are death and dismemberment waiting to happen — children are particularly attracted to the brightly-colored balls because they resemble toys or food. Over 20,000 Laotians, many of them children, have been killed or injured by unexploded ordnance (UXO) since the bombing ended in 1973, with hundreds of additional casualties occurring each year. Ten of Laos’ 18 provinces remain severely contaminated by UXO.
”Over the years, thousands of Laotians have been killed or injured — farmers tending their fields, children playing,” Obama said in announcing the increased US aid. “The wounds — a missing leg or arm — last a lifetime. And that’s why, as president, I’ve dramatically increased our funding to help remove these unexploded bombs.”
Phongsavath Manithong, now 24, was 16 when he picked up an unexploded bomblet while walking home from school with his friends. “One of my friends found a cluster bomb but he didn’t know what it was, so he gave it to me and I tried to open it. I played with it. I just wanted to see what it was,” Manithong told ABC News. “Then it exploded it. It exploded very quickly. I couldn’t hear it. I couldn’t see it.” The next thing Manithong remembered was waking up in a hospital. “I couldn’t see anything, I felt like I was on fire.” The teen lost both of his arms and is now blind.
”Given our history here, I believe that the United States has a moral obligation to help Laos heal,” Obama said, adding that he would meet with bombing survivors on Wednesday. Many Laotians applauded Obama’s speech, including President Bounnhang Vorachit, who said he “welcomed the US government’s continued commitment to clear unexploded ordnance, assist victims, prevent future casualties and develop local capacity to ensure sustainability of this work.”
“I am really happy that the first US president, Obama, is coming and visiting our country,” Manithong, who has dedicated his life to advocating for a cluster bomb ban and educating children about the dangers of UXO, told ABC News. “I would like to tell him that we are not angry because it is not his mistake, but we need help. I am very happy that the American government is generously supporting our country to clean up the UXO. But I want to tell [Obama] that there are many thousands of victims. We need support more than they are doing right now.”
Critics, however, predictably accused Obama of continuing his “apology tour” — even though the president offered no such apology during his remarks or at any time in Laos or on his trip.
Meanwhile, cluster bombs continue to kill and maim not just in Laos but in conflict zones around the world. Saudi forces have widely used the weapons, which have been banned by 108 countries but not Saudi Arabia or the United States, in or near civilian areas with devastating results. In June, the House of Representatives voted mostly along party lines — 200 Republicans and 16 Democrats — to narrowly defeat a measure that would have banned the sale of cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ), chairman of the House Committee on Defense Appropriations, argued against the effort to ban cluster bomb sales to Saudi Arabia, fearing such a move would “stigmatize” the weapon. President Obama, frustrated by the growing civilian casualty toll in Yemen, had quietly placed a hold on the transfer of cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia in May; the defeated amendment would have codified the hold.
Since the Vietnam War, the United States has killed both enemy troops and innocent civilians with cluster bombs in Serbia during the 1999 NATO air campaign against the Slobodan Milosevic regime, Iraq and Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm and in Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen during the war against terrorism.
Last month, Textron Manufacturing Systems, the last remaining American cluster bomb maker, announced it would end production of the controversial weapons, citing reduced orders, a volatile political climate and the international ban on cluster bombs. In 2013, Textron won a $641 million Air Force contract to build cluster bombs for Saudi Arabia.