By Kevin O’Sullivan
On 4 June 2007 US Federal prosecutors in California arrested ten people on the charge of conspiring to overthrow the Communist government of Laos. The story behind the arrests reads like a Hollywood thriller. Earlier that year an undercover agent posing as an arms dealer named Steve Hoffmaster had contacted Harrison Jack, an American Vietnam War veteran associated with the group. In the months that followed Hoffmaster and Jack prepared an inventory list of weapons worth $9.8 million that included AK-47s, M-16 machine guns, rockets, mines, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and three shoulder-fired Stinger missiles designed to shoot down aircraft. When Hoffmaster finally turned the men in, among those arrested was 77-year-old General Vang Pao, senior leader-in-exile of the Hmong ethnic group and the man recruited by the CIA in 1960 to lead a ‘Secret Army’ to rid Laos of the influence of the communist Pathet Lao (the latter ably aided by North Vietnamese troops).
Vang Pao and over 100,000 Hmong had fled across the Mekong River into Thailand and on to the US after the Pathet Lao gained full control of Laos in 1975, but for those left behind the years of conflict had an even more devastating legacy. At the war’s height US bombers ran 100 sorties into Laos every day, targeting Pathet Lao strongholds in the north and parts of the Ho Chi Minh trail that ran through the south of the country. Equating to a mission every eight minutes for eight years, the extent of the campaign made Laos the most-bombed country of all-time, with more ordnance dropped than during the entirety of the Second World War. The human cost was huge: an estimated 200,000 Laotians were killed, twice that many wounded, and up to 750,000 made refugees.
But the destruction did not end with the peace agreement between the US and North Vietnam signed in January 1973. The conflict in Laos was the first to see the widespread use of cluster munitions (used to limited effect during the Second World War), a form of bomb usually dropped from the air that dispenses smaller, highly lethal bomblets that kill and maim across an area a few hundred metres wide, releasing thousands of tiny fragments easily absorbed by soft flesh and bone. In wartime, attacks are indiscriminate, destroying everything in their path. In peacetime, with a failure rate of as high as 30 percent in the case of Laos, cluster munitions become an enduring and difficult to eradicate reminder of conflict, the areas where they fell akin to minefields, leading to the staggering statistic that 98 percent of casualties caused by cluster munitions are civilians.
With a GNI per capita of only $440 and a heavy dependence on agriculture, the effect on Laos has been enormous. Farmers are unable to till too deep into the ground for fear of uncovering buried munitions, others are killed, maimed or left unable to work as a result of explosions, and it is not unheard of for entire families to be wiped out while clearing land or crops. Some abandon farming altogether, supplementing their income by selling scrap metal gathered from the unexploded ordnance that litter the country, putting their lives in further danger in the process.
But it is not only adult loss and disability that impact on families and communities in affected areas. The ‘bombies’ released from the cluster munitions, around the size of a tennis ball and sometimes daubed in bright colours, become part of everyday life for Laotian children, often viewed as toys and with too little attention paid to their dangers. Nor does the danger diminish with time. The stories of nine-year-old Joi, who was badly injured – shrapnel lacerated his throat, permanently damaging his vocal chords – and his brother, who was killed by a decades-old cluster bomb while digging for worms for fishing, are repeated in villages across Laos.
While we in the West remember the burning of draft cards and the horrors of the Vietnam War from the American side, Laos’s troubles offer a timely reminder of war’s enduring legacy, and, through the absence of China, India, Pakistan, Russia and the US from the 111 countries who adopted the anti-cluster bomb convention in Dublin in May 2008 and signed it at Oslo in December, the likelihood that we will continue to repeat its stories for years to come. Just ask the people of Kosovo, Lebanon and Georgia, where cluster munitions have been used in recent years.
Laos is the subject of the first programme in the fourth series of ‘What in the World?’, which begins on RTÉ1 television on Thursday 11 June at 11.05pm and continues with five further weekly programmes on human rights, globalisation and poverty in Colombia, Mali, Mongolia, Niger and Paraguay.