VIENTIANE, Laos – Decades after the U.S. gave Laos a horrific distinction as the world’s most heavily bombed nation per person, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton pledged Wednesday to help get rid of millions of unexploded bombs that still pockmark the impoverished country – and still kill.
The U.S. dropped more than 2 million tons of bombs on the North Vietnamese ally during its “secret war” between 1964 and 1973 – about a ton of ordnance for each Laotian man, woman and child. That exceeded the amount dropped on Germany and Japan together in World War II.
Four decades later, American weapons are still claiming lives. When the war ended, about a third of some 270 million cluster bombs dropped on Laos had failed to detonate. More than 20,000 people have been killed in Laos since then by ordnance, according to Laos’ government, and agricultural development has been stymied.
Clinton, gauging whether the nation can evolve into a new foothold of American influence in Asia, met with the prime minister and foreign minister, part of a weeklong diplomatic tour of Southeast Asia. The goal is to bolster America’s standing in some of the fastest growing markets of the world, and counter China’s expanding economic, diplomatic and military dominance of the region.
Laos is the latest test case of the Obama administration’s efforts to “pivot” U.S. foreign policy away from the long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The efforts follow a long period of estrangement between Washington and a former Cold War-era foe, and come as U.S. relations also warm with countries such as Myanmar and Vietnam.
In her meetings, Clinton discussed environmental concerns over a proposed dam on the Mekong River as well as investment opportunities and the joint efforts to clean up the unexploded bombs dropped across Laos over what was once called the Ho Chi Minh trail. Greater American support for programs in these fields will be included in a multimillion-dollar initiative for Southeast Asia to be announced later this week.