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When Hillary Clinton met Phongsavath Souliyalat
July 27, 2012
When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton touched down in Lao Peoples Democratic Republic (Lao PDR) last week, she met Phongsavath Souliyalat, who had lost both his hands and his eyesight to a U.S. cluster bomb four years ago on his 16th birthday.
This marked the first time a U.S. secretary of state had traveled to Lao PDR and met with a wounded survivor of the U.S. air war that began more than 45 years ago.
I could not have imagined a visit from a U.S. official during my time as a Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) worker in Lao PDR (1980-1985, 1994). In the immediate aftermath of the Vietnam War, relationships between the U.S. and Lao PDR were so strained that high-level political contacts were not possible. Thankfully, diplomacy, trade and time have healed some wounds of war and led to much warmer relations in recent years.
However, as Secretary Clinton learned during her visit, fresh wounds from the years of war are a persistent reality in Lao PDR. The U.S. air war (1964-1973) over Lao PDR dropped more than 260 million cluster bomblets, many of which failed to explode on impact, constituting one of the most painful features of Lao village life over the past 40 years.
In travels throughout northern Lao PDR, I frequently encountered the people who have had to live with these deadly remnants of war. Tu va Chao’s story is typical. In 1993, his two young daughters were herding their family buffalo when they found a strange object, a bomblet, along their path. Their childhood play turned to tragedy when the bomblet blew up and killed them. More than 20,000 villagers have been injured and killed since the end of the war, many as a result of cultivating the soil, digging for bamboo shoots and other daily activities necessary to sustain life there.
While Lao villagers always received us with warmth and grace, their stories of pain and loss were never far from the surface. In lamp-lit villages, while sharing meals served with utensils made from U.S. war material, the question of responsibility hung in the air. How would we as U.S. citizens respond to the suffering that had roots in our politics and technology?
Whatever the aims of the U.S. bombing campaign, military strategists could not have intended the deaths of Lao villagers so many years after the war. Even in the harshest of calculations, what benefit could possibly be derived from Souliyalat’s devastating injury? Why are Lao villagers still suffering injury and death?
The problem is that the massive scale of the bombing campaign and the unexploded ordnance (UXO) it left behind are being addressed with funding and structures that are unrelated to the size of the task. The systematic effort to clear Lao PDR of UXO began in 1994, 20 years after the last bombs fell, with leadership from the Lao Committee for Social and Veteran’s Affairs, Mennonite Central Committee and the Mines Advisory Group. After several years, other government and UN agencies began to participate.
The U.S. has supported the clearance of UXO in Lao PDR to the tune of $2.5-$3 million a year most years since 1996, a far cry from the $17 million a day (in today’s dollars) spent bombing Lao PDR. After more than 15 years of sustained clearance and education work, fewer than 1 million of the estimated 80 million unexploded bomblets have been destroyed, and victim assistance providers remain underfunded. But recent increases in funding by the U.S. (totaling $9 million in 2012) and contributions from other donors have begun to reduce the number of casualties.
In 2011, six former U.S. ambassadors to Lao PDR wrote a joint letter to Clinton calling on the U.S. to give $10 million per year, sustained over 10 years, “to strengthen and secure the Lao UXO sector’s capacity and bring its already effective programs to scale.”
Phongsavath Souliyalat received Clinton with grace, dignity and a smile, wishing her health and “all your good dreams come true.” I don’t know the whole of what passed between them, but I long for Clinton’s encounter with this gentle young man to be more than a photo opportunity.
Surely it is time for a generation of Lao children to grow up and learn about the war through the history books, rather than through the trauma of cluster bombs on their village paths. Surely every Lao farmer has the right to cultivate soil not embedded with bombs. The U.S. has both the responsibility and the opportunity to make this happen with sustained, long-term funding. A U.S. pledge of $10 million a year over a 10-year period toward UXO clearance and victim assistance in Lao PDR is a good place to start.
To see Clinton’s meeting with Souliyalat, visit bit.ly/PvIGO2.