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
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1645 GMT (0045 HKT)
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
July 29, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1818 GMT (0218 HKT)
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1743 GMT (0143 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1939 GMT (0339 HKT)
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1852 GMT (0252 HKT)
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1209 GMT (2009 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT