Obama Pledges $90 Million to Clear Laos of Undetonated Bombs
While delivering a speech on Tuesday highlighting America’s progress in Asia, President Obama pledged $90 million over the next three years to help clear Laos–the Southeast Asian nation where the speech took place–of the millions of bombs that remain hidden and undetonated in its fields and forests.
“The spirit of reconciliation is what brings me here today,” said Obama to a crowd of 1,000 plus people, including Buddhist monks, in the country’s capital of Vientiane. “Given our history here, the U.S. has a moral obligation to help Laos heal.”
Looming in the shadow of the Vietnam War, America’s conflict with Laos was largely an extension of its fight against communism. Landlocked Laos was a key supply route for Vietcong forces. For nine years, U.S. airplanes dropped over 270 million bombs on Laos, more than it unleashed on Germany and Japan combined during World War II. That bombing campaign–essentially conducted in secret–still haunts the Laotian countryside, parts of which are still cratered by decades-old explosives.
An estimated 80 million bombs remain, live and ready to kill or maim an unsuspecting farmer or child. Only one percent of the remaining bombs have been cleared since the bombing ended in 1973, with over 20,000 people killed or injured by the baseball-sized bombs.
— The White House (@WhiteHouse) September 6, 2016
The $90 million Obama pledged on Tuesday, double the U.S.’s current support, would assist aid groups in finding and destroying the remaining bombs. The lingering effects of the Vietnam War, Obama said, makes it America’s duty to help Laos. “That conflict was another reminder that, whatever the cause, whatever our intentions, war inflicts a wrenching toll, especially on innocent men, women and children,” Obama said.
With his visit on Tuesday–he landed late Monday night following the G-20 summit in Hangzhou, China–Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Laos. During his remarks, which also highlighted U.S. accomplishments in the region like its cooperation with South Korea and expanded marine presence in Australia, Obama paralleled his visit to his earlier diplomatic thaws with Cuba and Myanmar. Both of those countries lacked any diplomatic relationship with the U.S. for decades before Obama warmed to them. Critics contend that both countries are fraught with issues, including human rights abuses, and as such the U.S. should not extend a handshake to them.
Obama’s visit to Laos might be his last in Asia during his tenure as president. He has made the region a priority during his eight years, often terming his focus there a “pivot.” He reiterated that on Tuesday, saying the U.S. will remain a potent force in the region for years to come.