Notes from the Field

In Laos, Remnants of War Remain

May 11, 2011

On May 10, 2010, a woman named Ms. Thong was doing what she ordinarily does in her remote village in Xieng Khouang province, Laos – cooking rice for she and her 15-year-old daughter. But on this day, the heat from the cooking fire ignited unexploded ordnance (UXO) under her home. Fortunately, Ms. Thong and her daughter survived, but both suffered serious burns and pieces of shrapnel remain in their bodies. Ms. Thong’s daughter lost part of her foot.

Most Americans might think this was an unfortunate, isolated incident, but for the people of Laos this is sadly almost a daily occurrence. Each year approximately 300 people in Laos are injured or killed by UXO. The ordnance that exploded under Ms. Thong’s house was one of more than 270 million cluster munitions (also known as “bombies”) that the U.S. Air Force dropped on Laos between the years of 1964 to 1973. Laos was bombed every eight minutes, every day, for nine years, making it the most heavily bombed nation in history.

The ordnance that exploded under Ms. Thong’s home was likely dropped before she was even born. The estimated failure rate of cluster munitions is 30 percent, leaving approximately 80 million “bombies” and other ordnance unexploded. More than half of UXOs are in Xieng Khouang, the northeastern province where Ms. Thong and her daughter live.

Of the 300 people injured or killed each year by UXO, 40 percent of them are children. One of the worst incidents in recent memory was in February 2010 when a group of young children tending after water buffalo touched a BLU-3 “pineapple bombie” (nicknamed for its shape and color) killing five children and injuring one other. To make matters worse, as the price of steel has risen, people (including kids) are increasingly putting themselves at risk to collect UXOs, as their steel casings are worth a substantial amount of money for locals in this area. Scrap collectors can earn $15 to $18 per day, compared to the average person who makes an average of $4 per day.

For those unfortunate to be injured by cluster munitions or other UXO, the Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise (COPE) works with the government-run National Rehabilitation Center (NRC) to provide prostheses and support devices free to people with mobility impairments. About 30 percent of those who come to COPE are injured by UXOs. Others receive prostheses because they suffer from the effects of leprosy or club foot.

On Aug. 1, 2010, the Convention on Cluster Munitions was signed by 108 countries (but not the U.S.) in Vientiane. The Convention obliges signatories to ban the use and production of cluster bombs and to clear affected areas and help victims. In 2010, the U.S. provided $1.4 million to train people in how to defuse ordnance. Other support comes from Japan, New Zealand, and Switzerland, among others. In the past 12 years, one million bombs have been cleared. But at this rate, it will take centuries before Laos will be “bombie free.” Hopefully the United States and the rest of the international community will do more to help rid Laos of UXOs expeditiously.

John J. Brandon is The Asia Foundation’s director of International Relations Programs in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at jbrandon@asiafound-dc.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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