Vientiane, Laos: Laos, a country still dealing with the consequences of the Vietnam War, is currently facing a dangerous predicament due to a lack of funds for the crucial task of removing unexploded bombs. These bombs were dropped by U.S. bombers during the conflict and continue to pose a significant threat.
With an alarming estimate of 80 million unexploded ordnance (UXO) scattered throughout the nation, Laos sadly holds the unfortunate record of being the most heavily bombed country per person in the world. The concentration of these deadly remnants, colloquially referred to as “bombies,” poses a constant threat to the lives of the Laotian people.
In the years spanning from 1964 to 1973, when the Vietnam War was in full swing, the country of Laos found itself subjected to a relentless onslaught of bombings. The purpose behind these airstrikes was to cripple the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a vital pathway used by North Vietnamese troops for transporting crucial supplies. During this harrowing period, an astonishing number of cluster bombs, estimated at over 270 million, rained down upon the land of Laos. Shockingly, around 30% of these destructive devices failed to explode upon impact, leaving behind a dangerous legacy. From small objects no bigger than tennis balls to larger, more menacing cluster bombs, the remnants of these lethal weapons continue to present an imminent and grave danger to the people of Laos.
Laos’ development and progress have been severely hindered by the presence of unexploded bombs. The path to growth and prosperity in Laos has faced formidable obstacles due to the dangerous remnants of unexploded bombs. This issue has profoundly impacted the nation’s advancement and well-being. It is estimated that around 7.5 million people in Laos, a significant portion of the population, reside on UXO-contaminated land.
Regrettably, these individuals live in constant apprehension of life-threatening explosions, as the remnants, often referred to as “bombies,” can be deceitfully concealed within the shallow earth, camouflaged amidst the branches of trees, or lurking silently in the furrows of fields. Consequently, this precarious situation erects significant barriers to agricultural endeavors, hampers infrastructure development, and obstructs the overall progress of the nation’s economy.
Prosthetic limbs at the COPE Center, The COPE Center provides prosthetic limbs and rehabilitation programs for people maimed by UXOs (unexploded ordinances).
photo credits : Sahana david Menon
Foreign funding, particularly from the Japanese government, has played a crucial role in bomb clearance efforts in Laos. However, funding in three southern provinces, namely Saravane, Sekong, and Champassak, has run dry, leaving workers without payment for their labor. The lack of funds has not only halted clearing operations but also affected the livelihoods of those involved.
Workers in these provinces report not receiving their salaries since May of the previous year. Despite working diligently on various tasks such as office work, equipment maintenance, and assisting villagers with unexploded bombs, they have gone unpaid. The delay in payment has forced some workers to seek alternative employment to support their families, leaving the clearing efforts further understaffed.
Daunting Clearance Statistics
A haunting legacy from past conflicts continues to afflict approximately 30% of the land in Laos, where unexploded ordnance remains a persistent threat. Shockingly, since the last bomb fell on Laotian soil in 1973, a mere 1% of this hazardous weaponry has been successfully neutralized. These distressing statistics were brought to light by Legacies of War, a non-governmental organization based in New York, which advocates for a Laos free from the dangers of bombs.
The NGO reveals that out of the astounding 270 million cluster bombs deployed in Laos, an estimated 80 million, or roughly 30% failed to detonate upon impact and remain buried in the ground to this day.
Recognizing the urgency of the situation, the Japanese government has played a significant role in providing financial support to Laos over the past five years. Their aid, totaling more than US$14 million, has been allocated to initiatives such as bomb clearance, education, healthcare, and overall development. Furthermore, the Japanese government has recently committed to contributing over 800 million yen (approximately US$6 million) to fund ongoing efforts in removing the bombs and supporting local development and poverty reduction in the three southern provinces.
A display showcasing suspended remnants of cluster bomb submunitions ‘BOMBIES” that have yet to detonate. At the COPE center in Vientiane, Laos.
photo credit : Sahana David Menon
However, despite these efforts, the shortage of funds has led to the suspension of operations by unexploded ordnance (UXO) teams in Saravane province. These dedicated teams have been left unpaid, causing their work to come to a standstill. The lack of payment and acknowledgment from higher-ranking officials has only intensified the frustration among those involved in the clearance efforts.
According to Radio Free Asia reports, the insufficient funding has led to a halt in the operations aimed at clearing unexploded bombs in Laos, which has had a profound impact on the overall progress. Thong Beuy Sing Khao Pheth, the leader of the UXO unit in Saravane, has reported that the teams were only able to clear 333 hectares (82 acres) of the targeted area of 337 hectares (91 acres) in the past year. This represents a mere fraction of the extensive work required to ensure the safety of the population.
Furthermore, the lack of payment for past work has placed the employees in a difficult financial situation and has brought about uncertainty. Some workers have not received their salaries since January of the previous year, adding to their frustrations and raising concerns about their families well-being. The team leader has advised them to await confirmation from high-level officials regarding the timeline for receiving their overdue payments.
In 2016, the historical visit of Barack Obama to Laos marked a significant milestone as he became the first U.S. president to set foot in the country. During his visit, he emphasized the devastating toll that war takes on innocent individuals, regardless of the cause or intentions behind it. Obama also made a noteworthy announcement, stating that he had significantly increased funding to aid in the removal of unexploded bombs, recognizing the urgent need for such efforts.
Unfortunately, Laos is burdened by a persistent fiscal deficit that limits the amount of money that can be allocated to address the issue of unexploded ordnance (UXO). The slow progress in disposing of these dangerous remnants of war places a heavy burden on the country’s economic growth, exacerbating the challenges it faces.
Despite receiving assistance from countries like Japan and the United States, the government of Laos constantly finds itself grappling with budget shortfalls. As a result, more than 90% of the UXO detectors operated by the government are left in a state of disrepair, rendering them ineffective in identifying and neutralizing these hazardous explosives.