Today, President Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Laos. It’s kind a big deal. So far, I think he’s hit all the right notes, pledging a substantial increase in funds to help clear unexploded ordnance dropped by U.S. planes decades ago during the Second Indochina War. Whereas the U.S. had given about $100 million over the last 20 years to help clear some of the bombing, this will now be increased to $90 million over the next three. The effects of these bombs have lingered for too long, causing about 20,000 casualties since the war officially ended, so it is good to see Obama take this seriously. (And, by the way, the New York Times has just published a story on how this increase in funds is almost entirely due to the amazing Channapha Khamvongsa. She has worked on this for a long time, and she is to be admired).
Others have observed that because Obama was too young to have served in the military during the Vietnam War, he has a fresher perspective and can therefore act as a generational page-turner. Perhaps that is sometimes necessary in order to rise above the past, as people often become entrenched in their views. The old guard phases out, and new blood enters the picture. In fact, Obama declared that his visit marked a new era in U.S.- Lao relations, based on mutual respect and “a shared desire to heal the wounds of the past.”
I’ve given this some thought. When I was younger, whenever I read a story about some tragedy — a car accident, a war, a terrorist attack, refugees forcibly displaced from their homes, a victim of sexual violence, etc. — I don’t think I quite understood the magnitude of how long that type of emotional pain could endure. Those things don’t just clear up overnight. They can persist well beyond the actual offense, even for decades. Because we are such a social species, intensely connected to others and highly attuned to the thoughts and emotions of the people around us, it seems that one of the key ingredients to healing is to hear that others recognize and respect our pain.
I think Obama recognized this. If I were a poor Laotian farmer whose fields were contaminated with leftover bombs, I would probably put more weight on the $90 million than on any speech or anything Obama might say. Yet, symbolic gestures can also go a long way. Obama’s statement that he recognized and had high hopes for “the dignity and the future of the people of Laos” is a potentially powerful one. At least I think so. Let’s see what happens during the next few days of his visit there.
From: Legacies of War
In a few days, Barack Obama will become the first U.S. president to have ever visited Laos. The organization Legacies of War has come up with the catchy title of LAObama to raise awareness of the visit. An NBC News story described Laotian and Hmong Americans as “cautiously optimistic” about the visit, including the possibility of further reconciliation after the war years, or at least bringing the two countries closer together.
“The visit of the President might help the former refugees from Laos and the government of Laos to speed up their long overdue reconciliation process. The war ended more than 40 years ago,” Asian American studies professor emeritus Kou Yang of California State University, Stanislaus told NBC News. “The U.S. should assist Laos to rebuild itself after the secret war. Bring Laos closer to the U.S. and closer to the more than 560,000 former refugees from Laos in the U.S. These refugees have already contributed much to the people of Laos. Each day, thousands and thousands of dollars are sent to Laos. Many schools and libraries are built by former refugees to the people in Laos.”
Whatever the results of the visit, it is still noteworthy that this is the first time a U.S. President will have set foot there. John F. Kennedy didn’t even know how to pronounce Laos (it doesn’t rhyme with “chaos”).
Good news. Two days ago, Voice of America reported that President Obama would announce more funding to remove bombs that the U.S. dropped on Laos. Some messes are so large that they can seem nearly impossible to clean up. The damage in Laos is so extensive that it will last for several more generations, but this is an improvement over the status quo.
The VOA video accompanying the story (below) looked instantly familiar to me, as it shows some of that damage in Xieng Khouang province. It looked very much like the area I saw the time I visited with one of the removal teams a few years ago. In fact, I saw some familiar faces. They do good work and deserve more support.
Channapha Khamvongsa, the founder and executive director of Legacies of War, an organization that advocates for removing the bombs said this: “What was once thought to be an insurmountable task now seems achievable in 10 to 20 years rather than a century… The next decade is critical, however, and it is necessary for the U.S. to commit to a long-term and sustained level of funding for UXO clearance and victim assistance in Laos.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Laos on Sunday, foreshadowing a visit by President Obama sometime this autumn. It will be the first ever visit by a U.S. President to Laos. There are probably several reasons for the visit, including strengthening ties, checking Chinese power in the region, etc. Most relevant to me is the hope that more will be done to alleviate some of the damage done during the war years, especially by removing leftover unexploded ordnance (UXO).
A CNN article mentions two emotions that Americans might feel toward President Obama’s position towards Laos: guilt and optimism. It quotes Channapha Khamvongsa, who founded he NGO Legacies of War, which works to raise awareness of UXO in Laos. Continue reading
Hillary Clinton was recently asked about the leftover bombs that the U.S. dropped on Laos. The heart of her reply:
“This is a humanitarian disaster that we created, and we need to put more money in and work much faster to try to clean it up so we don’t have more deaths and injuries.”
Today does not escape easily from yesterday.
Several media outlets have published stories in the last few days marking the 40th anniversary of the ‘end’ of the Vietnam War (although it is more accurately known as the Second Indochina War because it also involved the neighboring countries of Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand).
Some of these stories are about families of American veterans still searching for the remains of lost loved ones. Others are about the lingering divisions between northern and southern Vietnamese, even within the same family.
Perhaps Viet Thanh Nguyen, an associate professor of English and American studies at the University of Southern California, best summarized these accounts with his NYTimes essay “Our Vietnam War Never Ended”. He describes moving to the US as a young boy and then growing up in San Jose, California with a foot in two cultures, as well as the struggles and successes of Vietnamese and other refugee groups in the US. And despite the fact that his family members have achieved a lot, such as producing a professor at a prestigious university, he writes that their story is not a fairy tale:
“our family story is a story of loss and death, for we are here only because the United States fought a war that killed three million of our countrymen (not counting over two million others who died in neighboring Laos and Cambodia).”
Those two themes, that the war never truly ended, and that even those who survived and succeeded later in life have stories of loss and death, are important reminders of the past’s ability to reach into the present, even after forty years of yesterdays. All wars are unique, but their most consistent feature of war is the creation of suffering, which can last for decades, perhaps even centuries. Continue reading