More than 40 years after the end of the United States of America’s Secret War in Laos, the devastating effects continue to terrorize the Lao population. Unexploded bombs, or, unexploded ordnance (UXO), account for hundreds of deaths every year in Laos. This fact is hardly less of a secret than the war was.
In an all-out effort to halt communism in Southeast Asia, the USA and Communist Vietnam did not isolate the conflict to Vietnam. Laos played involuntary host to a war which raged to such a degree that it now stands as the most heavily bombed country in the history of the world. The statistics are bewildering. Between 1964 and 1973, the USA dropped 2 million tons of explosives on the lush, rolling mountains of Laos. This is equal to a plane full of bombs dropped every 8 minutes, 24 hours per day, for 9 years.
Four decades later, the population should consider this damage horrific, but part of their past nonetheless. Sadly, it is far from the reality that most Lao live with. Instead, the fear of losing an arm, a leg, or a life continues to haunt. Of the 270 million cluster bombs dropped, 80 million failed to detonate. These unexploded bombs, or ‘bombies’, as the locals call them, lie buried in the earth waiting for the innocent hand of a child, the blunt edge of a farmer’s shovel, or the heat from a fire inside a modest house in a peaceful mountain village.
Since the end of the war, at least 50,000 casualties have been reported as a result of unexploded bombs. With these incidents continuing, why is the issue still relatively unknown by the world at large? First, let’s take a look at what made this war a secret.
The Secret War
In 1962, 14 countries signed the International Agreement on the Neutrality of Laos (IANL). This agreement stated that the signatories would not draw Laos into military conflict during the escalating US involvement in Indochina. Two of the countries that signed were the USA and Vietnam. Laos had been in turmoil for decades, namely at the hand of the occupying French. Local revolutionary interests were also at odds with the Royal Lao Government, much like the scene in Vietnam. A strong relationship between the Pathet Lao (Communist group in Laos), and the North Vietnamese revolutionaries allowed for the construction of the Ho Chi Minh Trail through 1,000 plus miles of Eastern Laos.
The Ho Chi Minh Trail served as the secret route for North Vietnamese troops, weapons, food, and other materials necessary to supply troops along the trail down to South Vietnam. In addition, it allowed for a steady stream of aid to reach the Pathet Lao. However, the USA took notice, and by late 1964, began dropping bombs en masse.
The bomb dropping was often indiscriminate. If American planes didn’t locate proper targets in Vietnam, while returning to Northern Thailand, they would unload their explosives on Laos. Pilots regularly cited fear of landing with a full payload of explosives as a primary reason for doing this.
The bombing was not the extent of the involvement thrust upon Laos. After the war, thousands of local tribespeople from Hmong, Khmu, and other tribes trained by the CIA were at odds with the prevailing Communist Pathet Lao. While many of these people fled Laos, a large number vanished without a trace.
The Pathet Lao
The Pathet Lao, which means ‘Lao Nation’, had been seeking independence for decades. The concerted effort in the struggle to hold onto power finally proved sufficient against the United States’ airborne raid. Hidden in impressively well constructed cave dwellings, Pathet Lao leaders and villagers alike withstood over a decade of war with the USA. Kayson Phonminvan, the first president of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (Pathet Lao), didn’t leave his cave and surrounding mountains for 11 years.
Unexploded Bombs (UXO)
All 17 of Laos’s provinces are affected by unexploded bombs. Xieng Khuang province in Northeastern Laos, home to the mysterious Plain of Jars, is one of the most heavily burdened. The people of Xieng Khuang rely on agriculture for their income and food, so the fear of striking an unexploded bomb with a shovel or hoe slows down their progress dramatically. Moreover, loss of any body parts or functions due to a blast could doom a family. A farmer living several kilometers from where I write this article struck a bomb with his spade just four days ago. In spite of shrapnel spraying his face, he survived the blast. Farmers are not the only ones in danger of these incidents.
1/3 of all accidents involve children. Many children understand that metal holds a high price, and think that digging it up to exchange for money will help their families financially. Indeed, it does, so long as the bomb doesn’t explode. Laos is one of the poorest countries in the world, with nearly 70% of the country considered food insecure. Thus, scrap metal is prized, and sought out. Education about the dangers of unexploded bombs is crucial, but sadly lacking.
In Phonsavanh, the capital city of Xieng Khuang, two underfunded non-profit organizations educate Lao and foreigners, care for the disabled, and remove detected UXO. Prior to 1975, Muang Khoun, 30 kilometers south of Phonsavanh was the capital of the province, but apart from two crumbling temples, nothing remains. Phonsavanh now provides a convenient jumping off point for visiting Muang Khoun, learning about the UXO problem, and visiting the mysterious Plain of Jars. For learning about UXO, MAG (Mines Advisory Group), and QLA (Quality of Life Association) are great resources.
Mines Advisory Group (MAG)
Mines Advisory Group (MAG) is a British organization that has removed 185,000 unexploded bombs from Laos since 2004. Their office in downtown Phonsavanh has daily showings of three UXO related documentaries. All three films are full of information. In addition, MAG sells beautiful crafts made by women whose families have been devastated by unexploded bombs. The walls of MAG’s lobby are lined with pictures, figures, and stories of life in the UXO riddled province. MAG has done a lot of work removing unexploded bombs from school grounds, and as a result, school enrollment in those 109 schools has collectively risen by 25%. The staff at MAG is helpful, interesting, and very friendly. Mai, who has worked with MAG for four years spoke with me about the UXO problem.
He sees that there is a lot of work to do, saying, “It will take hundreds of years to clean the UXO. It costs a lot of money.” A lot of this money comes from donations from foreigners, who they welcome warmly. “The Lao people see foreigners as friends. You come here in peace.”
MAG’s door is open and welcoming to anyone. US Americans, contrary to the beliefs and advice of many uninformed travelers, are not seen in a negative way by most Lao people. In spite of a tragic history, and the potential danger of UXO haunting many lives, compassion overrides.
(Quality of Life Association) QLA
The Quality of Life Association dedicates itself to educating foreigners about unexploded bombs. They show a 30 minute documentary about UXO in Laos, and the way that it affects lives. In the film, Kek, who lost both arms after a bomb exploded, talks about his struggles. He is a husband, father, and provider, all jobs that became nearly impossible following his accident.
QLA’s founders are 5 young Lao, 2 of whom are victims of UXO explosions. Thoummy Silamphoun is at the head of QLA. He lost one arm when he was 8 years old. The work that he and the others have done with limited funds is amazing. Take for instance the story of Chonglee, who lost an eye in the field behind his house. Following the incident, fear hung like a cloud over the family. QLA responded by providing Chonglee with $60 to rear a pig, an opportunity that could save his family. More than 60 cluster bomb victims and their families have received aid like this from QLA. But, with nearly 80 million unexploded bombs still buried, yet to be unearthed, the organization will need a lot more help.
Lack of awareness
Despite the wealth of UXO information and war history that Laos has, many travelers, myself included, pass through Laos naively. Drawn to the Caribbean-esque vibes of Vang Vieng and Don Det, and the more polished upscale tune of Luang Prabong, the vast majority miss a major learning opportunity. Nearly all travelers that I have talked to tell me that they never learned about the war-torn history in school, and most never heard about it while in Laos.
In 2013, I backpacked in Laos, and happily bounced between beautiful, friendly towns along the more established route. I remember one British expatriate mentioned in passing that Laos was the most heavily bombed country in the history of the world. I was in disbelief, but did not follow-up on it at all. Because of this experience, I know why people are unaware of the history.
In American schools, the subject goes virtually untouched. With the exception of scant information about the Vietnam War and Ho Chi Minh Trail, we learn nothing. Awestruck after learning about the Secret War, I have heard many people say, “I never knew that this happened! Wow, this changed my trip.” Julia Vetter of Arizona, whom I met in Phonsavanh, said, “It’s horrible that we didn’t learn this in school. How could we go so long without knowing about this? Now there is a huge opportunity to help repay and try to right what is wrong.” Like Julia, others exposed to these truths are taken aback. Fortunately, there are outlets for helping to assuage the impact of this catastrophe.
If you are reading this, and would like to learn more, the organizations I have mentioned both have more information on their websites. Links to the documentaries mentioned in the text are below. Bomb Harvest and Surviving the Peace are great for learning about life in a bomb torn country. The Secret War: Bombies gives an eerie look into the history of the Secret War, as well as at the countless effects bombs have had in Laos.
If you are reading this, and would like to provide financial aid to either organization, you can contact them on their website, or contact me via email(firstname.lastname@example.org) , and I will get in touch with them for you.
This is a secret that you can tell everyone! The easiest way to help is by informing people about the tragedy in Laos. The Lao people are kind, mellow, intelligent, and deserving of lives free from UXO.
Quality of Life Association (QLA): http://qlalaos.org/
Mines Advisory Group: http://www.maginternational.org/the-problems/the-uxo-problem-in-laos-statistics/#
Surviving The Peace (2011, 23 mins): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZrgUdWhbC7c
Bomb Harvest (2007, 53 mins): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BdOT5hQb3Qc
The Secret War: Bombies (2002, 55 mins): Unfortunately, Youtube is not currently showing this film