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Helping the healing in Laos


Channapha Khamvongsa comes from a new generation of Lao-Americans playing a key role in mending relations with her parents’ homeland by encouraging the US to clear more of the war’s deadly remains

The Plain of Jars near Phonsavan in Xieng Khouang province was secretly bombed by the US. ?? REUTERS

Channapha Khamvongsa (centre), with Congressmen Mike Honda (left) and Eni Faleomavaega. ??

CHANNAPHA Khamvongsa was just a small girl when her parents smuggled her out of Laos. Members of her family crossed the Mekong secretly in 1979, fleeing the new communist regime. She was seven years old and the last of three children to leave.

She said her father whispered instructions before giving her to a family friend: “This man is going to take you to your mum. If anyone asks, tell them he’s your father.”

Shortly after, she was on a small fishing boat on her way to Thailand. Later, her real dad swam the river to join them all in Nong Khai. After a short period in a refugee camp, they ended up in the United States, where her father – a policeman from Luang Prabang and member of the national basketball team – did blue collar work to help put his three children through school.

Much has changed in the three decades since. The war in Indochina has faded into history; the horrific traumas of the 1960s and early 70s are now just a distant memory. Relations between America and the communist authorities in Vientiane have improved, slowly, with trade embargoes and other impediments removed in recent years. Old warriors of the wartime era – like Hmong leader General Vang Pao – are dead or fading. A new generation is taking over, and helping to heal wounds of the past.

Channapha could play a key role in a new era of healing. After college in the US, she met John Cavanagh, a colleague of Fred Branfman, the peace activist who revealed America’s secret bombing of the Plain of Jars during the war. Cavanagh had kept drawings of the mayhem it caused in villages in northern Laos, done by refugees who fled to Vientiane in the late 60s and early 70s.

“A lot of this history I didn’t know about,” she said on a recent trip to Bangkok. “My parents were living in Vientiane. I didn’t know about this, and even people who lived through the bombing didn’t know the extent of its severity until years later.”

The drawings were the catalyst for serious research into the events of the war and the formation of a non-government group to try to help Laos recover from the damage done during that traumatic time.

Legacies of War was set up in 2004. “The goal is to raise awareness about the history of the bombing and, second, to increase resources, particularly US funding, for clearance [of unexploded bombs] and victim assistance,” Channapha said. “The third goal is to provide space for healing the wounds of war.”

The group has staged events in cities in the US with large communities of Laotian immigrants.

“We even work with veterans who participated in the bombing. Many of these veterans think it’s immoral not to clean up the remains of war.”

Laos has the highest concentration of unexploded cluster munitions in the world. An estimated 270 million bomblets were dropped on the country’s north and east between 1964 and 1973 by US planes. About a third of these failed to explode and remain a potent hazard to this day – three to four decades later.

A survey of nearly 8,500 villages in 2008 revealed around 50,000 people had been killed or injured by unexploded bombs since the mid-60s. This toll has risen by hundreds more over the past few years, as farmers, children and people collecting scrap metal continue to join the long list of victims.

The debris from the war is so substantial and widespread the Lao government has only been able to clear about one per cent of the country, or about 19,000 hectares. Officials estimated last month that it will need US$30 million a year to remove UXO (unexploded ordnance) from the war.

Legacies of War was instrumental in mobilising several former American ambassadors to Vientiane, such as Douglas Hartwick, to call for more US funds to clear up unexploded bombs in the Southeast Asian nation. And in 2009, US and Lao government officials had their first face-to-face meeting in the US on the issue of UXO in Laos.

“When Legacies was started seven years ago, I think it was the right time – just after Laos and the US had normalised trade relations. And I think it was a coming of age of a new generation of Laotian Americans who had knowledge of the war, but not the baggage of the older generation. So I think there’s an openness to support the well-being of the people of Laos. They didn’t see it as a political issue but a humanitarian one,” Channapha said.

The US government – previously obsessed with seeking the remains of US soldiers Missing In Action – responded positively, boosting the amount it gives for bomb clearance in Laos. But the NGO is pressing for more.

“I feel we’ve been able to bring together a lot of people involved in this issue. We’ve been able to get them [Congress] to double the spending from $2.5 million to $5 million annually. And we’re asking for $7 million for fiscal year 2012 – primarily for clearance,” Channapha said.

“This amount is pretty minor compared to the cost of the bombing, which was equivalent to $17 million a day in today’s dollars, for a period of nine years. The US has spent less in 15 years [on UXO clearance] than the cost of three days bombing.

“Every time we raised this issue, it’s almost a no-brainer – [as] they haven’t taken care of this. It’s a feeling across the board. It’s just about political will. We need to keep the issue on the radar and have the political will to keep it going.”

The Lao government was one of 108 nations that signed the Convention on Cluster Munitions when it hosted the first Meeting of States Parties in Vientiane late last year. This set plans to ban the use, production and transfer of cluster munitions. It also set goals for clearing and destroying these weapons, which will require additional resources for Laos.

Meanwhile, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and the US have yet to sign the convention. Indeed, Thailand was accused of using these controversial bombs in border clashes recently with Cambodia. If there is a message from Laos, it’s a simple one: these weapons are such a nightmare to clean up, they should never be used.

The Lao National Unexploded Ordnance Programme was set up in 1996. It receives about $7-8 million a year from donors, a quarter of what it needs, according to the state-run Vientiane Times. The UXO fund receives support from Australia, Germany, the EU, Japan, Ireland, Luxembourg, Norway, New Zealand, Poland, Switzerland, Britain and the US.

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