I preface this with the fact I am not a perfect Vietnam war scholar and am sharing information as it was presented to me at the UXO LAO visitor center. If anything below is incorrect and you have more knowledge please email me and I will look into it further. Thank you.
I’ve mentioned before the visible impacts the varying changes in governmental structures over the last 100 years have had on Laos, but by far one of the most drastic events to shape current Laos was the second Indochina war. Known to Americans as the Vietnam war, this period of time had devastating impacts on vietnams neighboring countries. The primary supply route for the north Vietnamese was called the Ho Chi Minh highway which stretched all the way up the eastern edge of Laos along the Vietnam boarder. In an attempt to cut off the main supply chain network of the north Vietnamese the US tried many tactics to get rid of the route. Most notably bombing runs. Between the years of 1964 to 1973 the US government dropped some 400 million explosive devices on the country of Laos. Giving it the unwanted title of most bombed country in the world. Because the US was not in a declared war with Laos many articles of the Geneva convention did not apply including those controlling the use of explosive ordinance near non-military areas including villages and religious landmarks. As such bombs were littered across the country in all regions without significant regard for targets hit. Many of the exact locations of bombing runs was not disclosed until 2000 when bill Clinton declassified the US Air Force bombing records. However even these did not include covert runs, non-documented strikes, and most disturbingly payload dumps. Air Force literature indicates pilots were frequently sent out and told not to return with any ordinance left in their bays. This lead to numerous payload dumps where upon completing a mission, with no further specified targets, pilots would freely drop the rest of their bombs over random areas before returning to base.
Of the 400 million bombs and cluster bombs dropped in Laos it is estimated roughly 1/3 of those did not explode on impact. This means there are 10s of millions of explosive devices littered all over the country ranging from large bombs the size of a sofa to tiny cluster bomb “bombies” which are no larger than a tennis ball.
These devices pose a massive threat to Laotian people who come across them in their daily lives. Frequently, and not like once or twice a year but on a weekly to daily scale unsuspecting farmers using hand tools, or children playing in the forest, or mothers building fires to cook food for their families inadvertently trigger one of these set devices anything from mutilation to death. One of the hardest parts at the UXO LAO visitor center is when they sit you down for a movie presentation which interviews 5 people, four of whom are children who have been severely handicapped by UXOs going about their daily lives. One story follows a young boy who was out shooting bird with a slingshot when he ran out of rocks and came across a bombie which to him looked like a rock so he smashed it on the ground to break it into smaller pieces. The explosion blew shrapnel into his eye and his family not having the money to go to a doctor used homeopathic medicine ending resulting in a 7 year old being blind in one eye and with out three fingers for the rest of his life. One farmer they interview discusses how after loosing his arm his three children had to leave school in grades 7, 9 and 10 to help the family farm rice because they could no longer pay for food or repairs to their already bare home. It was seeing the impact of destruction caused by foreign interests some 40 years later still wreaking havoc on the lives of already impoverished peoples that really hit me.
But its not ALL bad. UXO LAO is a non profit organization partially funded by the Australian and Japanese government which attempts to catalog known bombing sights and defuse and remove any un-exploded ordinance (UXOs) they can find across the country. In addition to known sights they comb over areas near schools and villages with potential UXO’s to hopefully keep locals safe from hidden dangers right below their feet. In addition to UXO removal the organization also goes out to many rural villages to educate children and elders alike what to do if they find UXO’s and ways to go about daily chores in a safer, more vigilant way. They have put through school programming across the country such that most children by the age of 10 know what UXO’s look like, how to avoid them and report to elders for future removal.
All that being said it is a slow going process. Each removal requires teams of people and significant amounts of equipment. Not to mention q very specific set of skills required to handle these devices. Luckily many Laotian people want to work toward clearing their country and are being educated to assist in the non-profits mission. Even with growing volunteers money and supplies are limited and even more than 40 years after the bombing of Lao ceased, UXO LAO estimates it will be another 100 years until the country is fully cleared of the effects of the Vietnam War.
All in all this was a drastically humbling experience that I recommend any western visitor to Luang Prabang experience for themselves. None of this is taught in American schools and unless you specifically go out of your way to find it, there is no reason most Americans would every be exposed to the reality of the things our country has done. And while in this case it was definitely the fault of the American government, and of that I am remarkably ashamed to call it home, I’ve learned something important to remember for all of life on this trip. Having talked to many other travelers from countries all over the world, no one is proud of their government. They’ve all done horrible things at some point or ignored the needs of their people and while it would be nice if they would own up to their failures and fix their mistakes, it is not the fault of the people who live in those countries for the things their governments do behind closed doors. But still, Laos I’m sorry.