Bombs Away: US Clears Laos of the Unexploded

More than two decades after it dropped over 2 million tons of bombs on this small Southeast Asian nation, the US military is helping Laos dispose of leftover explosives.

Crew-cut American officers are training Laotians as part of an international program to clear hundreds, if not thousands, of unexploded pieces of ordnance that pose a threat to Laotian farmers.

The American military presence in this landlocked nation has come full circle: Laos was a giant staging area for the US bombing campaign against North Vietnamese troops traveling on the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos into South Vietnam, and also against Laotian Communist rebels.

Today, the debombing campaign is a sign the US is warming up to this Communist-run nation.

Although Washington maintained a diplomatic presence in Laos following the seizure of power in 1975 by the Communist Pathet Lao group, relations soured as Vientiane joined with a reunited Vietnam as loyal members of the Soviet camp during the cold war.

At one point, the United States Embassy's entire staff in Vientiane dwindled down to four people. One of the first postwar cooperative programs with the Lao government began in the mid-1980s as part of the effort to recover Americans missing in action (MIA) from the 1964-73 war in the Indochina nations of Laos, Cambodia, and then-South and North Vietnam.

"We had a team come in during the dry season and spend a few days assessing a known crash site," explains departing US Ambassador Victor Tomseth. "People [on the team] were locked in their hotel rooms at night and weren't allowed to go out."

A new partnership

In Xieng Khouang Province in northeast Laos, Lai Bounlavong's teachers tower over her. As a member of the first graduating class of the Unexploded Ordnance (UXO) Clearance Course, Ms. Bounlavong and her 29 colleagues will have the dangerous task of identifying and disposing of unexploded bombs in 12 of the country's 17 provinces.

Nowadays, a team of 40 military personnel are flown into Laos every other month on average to excavate crash sites of American war planes in search of MIA remains. Coupled with some 30 soldiers involved in the UXO training program as well as others on various embassy assignments, the US military presence in this country, which is slightly larger in size than Utah, currently totals more than 100 people. Not a huge number, but one that is nevertheless noteworthy in a country of 4.6 million which remains nominally communist.

"The idea of bringing in 40 military personnel every other month and essentially sending them anywhere is surprising," says a Vientiane-based Western diplomat who request anonymity. "There's a level of trust and understanding that wasn't here before."

Observers say the Lao government has several reasons for allowing such a presence. The first is a growing awareness of the long-term negative impact the unexploded bombs are having on national development. According to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), UXOs "constitute a root cause of poverty and food shortages in affected provinces."

The UN organization claims that the likelihood of death and injury is also expected to increase as the population grows and more people want yet-uncleared lands for agricultural production.

"They're forced to take risks," UNDP's resident representative, Jan Mattsson, declares. "The choice is to take the risk or let their kids go hungry."

The other reason is linked to the Lao government's gradual opening to the West as a result of the collapse of its main benefactor, the Soviet Union. Vientiane is looking to improved ties with countries such as the US and regional partners in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations as a means of assuring economic survival.

It has already succeeded in getting Washington to lift its restrictions on risk insurance for American investors through the Overseas Private Investment Corporation. It has also procured foreign aid through the US Agency for International Development, although it is symbolic in light of Congressional budget-cutting for aid.

Laos is now hoping to hammer out a bilateral trade agreement with Washington, which would eventually lead to lower tariffs on its US-bound exports.

While the US military presence has also helped to foster closer ties, suspicions built up over a decade of war still linger. One example is that the Lao government does not allow American soldiers to wear uniforms while in country.

"There obviously have been rather profound sensitivities to US military involvement in Laos," Mr. Tomseth explains. "There's a history to the relationship, and there are still some people around who remember what it was like in the old days. That clearly is manifested in the sensitivity about wearing uniforms."

The ambassador notes that in early 1994 the US originally proposed to bring a military team into Laos to survey the UXO situation with the idea of setting up clearance projects, but the proposal got no response.

"It's quite clear that the military aspect of it has caused some pause initially on the part of at least some Laotian officials and people in the [ruling Communist] party," he adds.

Once the project was folded into a multilateral effort, however, the government became more responsive. "I'm sure that, metaphorically at least, this was a rather difficult political bullet for people to bite," says Tomseth, "but once they did, my sense is that they've been fairly comfortable with the idea that we've got Special Forces and Marines back in Laos training people on ordnance inspection, disposal, awareness, and things of that sort."

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