The future looks bright for this small, landlocked, mountainous country. Laos is preparing to enter the World Trade Organization and has announced earnest plans to “graduate” from the world’s Least Developed Countries list by 2020. The U.S. has good reasons to engage with Laos as well – this slowly liberalizing nation is due to assume Chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2014, and an economically growing Laos is central to stability and growth in the Lower Mekong region, a priority for Secretary Clinton.
Secretary Clinton’s visit to Laos also presents an opportunity to return to unfinished business: A persistent crisis that slows economic development and continues to cast a shadow on U.S. relations in the region. Approximately 800,000 cluster bombs are still buried in Lao soil, remnants of the Secret War that the U.S. waged in the country, without Congressional consent, from 1964 to 1973. While the U.S. fought the Vietnam War, it secretly flew 580,000 bombing missions over Laos, a country the size of Minnesota. The bombings dropped one ton of ordnance for every man, women, and child in Laos at the time, making it the most heavily bombed nation per capita in history. Up to a third of these bombs did not explode when they hit the ground and remain to this day literal time bombs, preventing much needed agriculture and infrastructure development and threatening the lives and livelihoods of villagers across Laos.
In 2010, I was fortunate to have visited Laos as part of a bipartisan congressional delegation with my friends, Congressman Eni Faleomavaega (D-American Samoa) and then-Congressman Joseph Cao (R-La.). During the visit, I witnessed the devastating effects of these unexploded ordnance (called UXO) on the local population, hindering economic growth and forcing thousands of people to go about their daily lives in fear of deadly explosions. According to Legacies of War, since the bombings ended in 1973, about 20,000 people have been killed or maimed by UXO, many are children who play or tamper with the small, toy-like cluster bombs. I believe that we have a moral obligation to help eliminate our debilitating war legacy.
The U.S. began supporting clean-up of these bombs in 1997, and has since contributed a total of almost $47 million through the State Department. The U.S. is the largest contributor to this effort, but the funding since the war ended pales in comparison to the $17 million spent every day for nine years dropping these bombs. In fact, only about one percent of these bombs have been cleared thus far. We have a long way to go, but I am confident this is a problem that can be solved with sufficient political will.
Shortly after returning from Laos, I was proud to participate in then-Chairman Faleomavaega’s House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, and the Global Environment hearing on the UXO crisis in Laos. The expert witnesses, which included Legacies of War, the Humpty Dumpty Institute, and Mines Advisory Group America, successfully highlighted the urgent need for increased U.S. support. As a member of the House Appropriations Committee, I have helped secure an increase of State Department funds for UXO clearance efforts in Laos to $9 million in fiscal year 2012. I remain committed to ensuring that the U.S. fulfills its responsibility and helps the good people of Laos live without this persistent fear. Even in a time of fiscal austerity, it is critical to continue to represent American values of humanitarianism, justice, and fairness, especially as we build positive relations with allies in Southeast Asia. I call on Secretary Clinton to use this historic opportunity to reaffirm the U.S. commitment to a long-term, sustained effort to making Laos bomb-free in our lifetimes. Let us mend the wounds of the past together so that Laos can begin a new legacy of peace.
Honda is Silicon Valley’s representative in Congress. He is the co-chair of the Peace and Security Task Force of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and a senior member of both the House Budget and Appropriations committees.