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Andy’s Travel Diary

Monday, 18 Dec 2006

Location: Laos


Laos is a small, landlocked state nestled among its more recognisable neighbours of Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar/Burma and China.

It is a largely forgotten country that few people have heard of, can identify on a map, or pronounce its name properly (silent ’s’). Fewer still have travelled there, though this is beginning to change, for better or worse.

Indeed when it is remembered inevitably someone comments on its status as the most bombed country in the world; an unsavoury, much quoted and (importantly) fallacious distinction.

Laos was the unfortunate host of an illegal ’secret war’ waged by the United States and Vietnam during what should be correctly termed the Indochinese Wars. In total over two million tons of predominantly American high explosives reshaped the topography, demographics, economics and politics of this international backwater - exceeding all the raids suffered by Europe during the whole of World War Two. Imagine if you will the Blitz, the levelling of Warsaw, the numerous raids on Berlin, the firebombing of Dresden and Cologne to name a scant few examples. Then understand that this was distilled and inflicted on a country roughly the size of Great Britain.

Without detracting from the apalling suffering this sustained bombing campaign wrought, the United States pummeled Vietnam with over seven million tons of high explosives.

Laos is therefore not the most bombed country in the world but rather the most bombed country per capita. (A moot point i am sure to those on the receiving end of the bombing, but as a history graduate…)

Over one ton of explosives was graciously set aside for every man, woman and child in Laos. A lethal rain of anti-personnel bombs, indiscriminate cluster munitions and UXO’s poured down from American B-52s which flew sorties on average every eight minutes for nine years. You may want to read that again.

Costing the USA seven billion dollars and the Laotian people far more, the only winners were the military-industrial complex. Some bumper bonuses in those years no doubt.

In 1973 the bombing finally stopped. Unsurprisingly the suffering didn’t and the country still bears the scars to this day. Thirty per cent of the bombs dropped lie unexploded. On a personal level new victims are reported each day. Since the cessation of conflict between America and Vietnam nearly three times as many Laotions have died from the yellow cluster bombs that litter the landscape than died on 9/11. At a macro scale the scarcity of arable land just one example of an issue that can be resolved only when the secret war is finally transcended; a job that will take many generations and is a necessary precondition for the government’s promise to drag Laos out of the least developed country bracket by 2020.

Still American guilt and benevolence is strong, and with their help surely anything is possible. By the turn of the millenium Laos had received or was expecting $18 million in funds and $24 million in training and in-kind contributions to combat the problem. A quarter of this from the USA.

According to the journalist Dominic Faulder, “In dollar terms, this was about equivalent to 21 days of bombing—or about 0.6 percent of the duration of the bombardment. In real terms it was far less. Apart from the diminished value of today’s dollar, it is far cheaper to lay mines or scatter ordnance than it is to clear the stuff”.