Skip to main content

In Laos, Clinton's chance to undo lethal legacy

By Channapha Khamvongsa, Special to CNN
July 11, 2012 -- Updated 1226 GMT (2026 HKT)
Workers arrive to clear unexploded ordnance at a school in Laos in 2008.
Workers arrive to clear unexploded ordnance at a school in Laos in 2008.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Channapha Khamvongsa: Hillary Clinton travels to Laos, an opportunity to right relations
  • She says U.S. huge bombing campaign during "Secret War" left lethal ordnance behind
  • She says a third of Laos has unexploded ordnance; 20,000 have been killed, maimed
  • Writer: U.S. recently upped funding for cleanup; U.S., world must make long-term commitment

Editor's note: Channapha Khamvongsa is executive director of Legacies of War, an organization that seeks to address the problem of unexploded cluster bombs in Laos, to heal the wounds of war and to create greater hope for a future of peace

(CNN) -- On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrives in my former homeland of Laos. This is the first visit by any U.S. secretary of state since 1955 and a trip I didn't think would happen in my lifetime. After all, the U.S.-backed war in Laos left the U.S. and the new government of Laos in tense relations for decades.

Beyond the diplomatic significance of this trip, the visit can help to heal the wounds of war, bringing hope for many Americans of Lao descent, like myself, that we no longer have to choose between our former and new homelands. The visit offers an opportunity to help advance a complex relationship and address one of the remaining war legacies.

Between 1964 and 1973, during the Vietnam War, the U.S. dropped the equivalent of one planeload of bombs every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, on a country the size of Minnesota. One ton of bombs was dropped for every person in Laos at the time, making the nation the most heavily bombed per capita in history. The "Secret War," not formally authorized by Congress and in violation of international accords, sought to halt Communist ground incursions from North Vietnam and to cut off activities along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos.

I grew up not knowing much about this history -- it wasn't taught in school -- and what little I knew, I pieced together from my parents, who avoided extensive conversations about the past.

Channapha Khamvongsa
Channapha Khamvongsa

The bombing ended in 1973, the same year I was born in the capital city of Vientiane. The new government came into power shortly after, and by the time I was 6, my family left Laos due to the country's growing instability. The decision to leave their homeland was difficult for my parents, but it was guided by the promise that their young children would one day live the American dream of bountiful opportunities and lasting freedom.

Our harrowing journey began with the separation of our family members and a secretive swim by my father across the Mekong River to a refugee camp in Thailand, and eventually led us to northern Virginia, where I started my new life. Over the next 20 years, I set about becoming American, all the while mourning for a homeland I feared I would never see again. Laos clamped down its borders after 1975, and relations between the U.S. and Laos, while not severed, were tense. When they eventually thawed, I took the opportunity to travel.

In 2004, I made my first trip back to Laos, and felt a deep affection for the people, culture and land that I barely remembered from my childhood. Reconnecting with my Lao heritage included discovering the dark history and lingering effects of that Secret War -- of which I and the majority of Americans knew little. I discovered that the past is still very present.

In the 40 years since the bombing ceased, 20,000 people have been killed or maimed by unexploded ordnance, with an estimated one-third of Lao land still littered with it.

In subsequent trips, I witnessed the devastating effects of these leftover bombs on the local population: They hinder economic growth and force thousands of people to go about their daily lives in fear of deadly explosions. I met children in the countryside, many of whom were just 6 or 7 years old -- the same age I was when my family left the for the U.S. -- who were maimed by playing or tampering with the small, toylike cluster bombs. These children are innocent victims of a war we had thought was long over.

The U.S. began funding the cleanup of these bombs in 1997, and until recently, contributed an average of $2.6 million per year to this effort. This year, Congress directed that this contribution be increased to $9 million, a hopeful sign that the U.S. sees clearance of these bombs as a priority. But funding still pales in comparison to the enormity of the problem: Only about 1% of these bombs have been cleared. We have a long way to go, but this is a problem that can be solved -- as long as the U.S., in cooperation with Laos and other international donors, makes a long-term, sustained funding commitment.

As an American of Lao descent, I am heartened by Secretary Clinton's visit to Laos. The reconciliation process is well under way, and despite the complex history between my two homelands, the U.S. and Lao governments can be on the right side of history and clear Laos of these deadly bombs once and for all. That way, the dreams that my parents had for me when I resettled in the U.S. -- to live freely and with bountiful opportunities -- may also be realized for the children in Laos for generations to come.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Channapha Khamvongsa

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 0423 GMT (1223 HKT)
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1554 GMT (2354 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT