Obama in Laos

From Legacies of War

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”).

Cleaning the Mess Left Behind in Laos

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.”

“It’s never too late” to do the right thing: UXO 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).

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 on UXO in Laos

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.”

Related posts

 

 

40 Years After the Second Indochina War

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

The Biology of Forced Displacement

“Seeking asylum is not illegal under international law and people have a right to be treated humanely and with dignity.”  – UNHCR

We crossed the Mekong to get to Thailand at night, so no one would see us. We had always lived in the mountains (of northern Laos), so we did not know how to swim. When we came to the river, we used anything to help us float – bamboo, bicycle tubes. But at night, it is easy to get lost. Someone in our group said: ‘Remember, if you get lost when you’re going down the river (with the current), don’t panic. Thailand is on your right.’ ”

 

 

Every refugee has a story. The one above was told to me by a Hmong man I met in French Guiana in 2001. I went to learn about the experiences of the people there and how they had adjusted to being resettled half a world away, from Southeast Asia to a French ‘overseas department’ in Amazonia. They were actually doing quite well at the time, living as independent farmers who had been given land by the government years earlier.

Hmong men in French Guiana going hunting by bike.

Hmong men in French Guiana going hunting by bike.

They also retained a good degree of cultural continuity. While most are fluent in French, the majority of the 2,000+ Hmong in the country lived in rural, semi-isolated, ethnically homogenous villages. This gave them a buffer of sorts, allowing them to acculturate on their own terms. As they often put it, they were “free to be their own boss,” free to be Hmong, and most said they were happy with life in French Guiana. This combination of traits – economically self-sufficient, culturally distinct, mostly content, living in a rural overseas department – is not the typical refugee story. In fact, because of that relative uniqueness, the French Guiana Hmong have drawn attention from media outlets such as the BBC and the NY Times.

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Civilians, Refugees, and the 2nd Indochina War in Laos

[Note (June 28, 2019): I’m seeing an uptick in the number of views on this essay. Is there any reason? Since this site is a labor of love, I’m just curious how it is being used.]

In Houa Phanh and Xieng Khouang provinces, the war (in Laos) has reached into every home and forced every individual, down to the very youngest, to make the agonizing choice of flight or death.” (Yang 1993: 104)

Those who suffered the most from the escalating conflict were populations living in the east of the country: overwhelmingly highland minorities, Lao Thoeng and particularly Lao Sung (Mien as well as Hmong), but also upland Tai, the Phuan of Xiang Khouang and the Phu-Tai of east central Laos.” (Stuart-Fox, 1997: 139)

Military Region II (northeastern Laos) bore the brunt of the war for almost fifteen years. Nearly 80% of the refugee population in Laos originated in MR II, including the refugees on the Vientiane Plaine. Almost the entire population of Houa Phan (Sam Neua) and Xieng Khouang Provinces were gradually forced south into the Long Tieng, Ban Xon, Muang Cha crescent.” (USAID, 1976: 210)

 

Displaced Hmong in Laos, probably in the early 1970s. Source: Roger Warner. 1998.

Displaced Hmong in Laos, probably in the early 1970s. Source: Roger Warner. 1998.

 

A consistent feature of war is the harming of civilian lives. The extent of harm is not always easy to ascertain, but is sometimes quantified in the number of “excess deaths” that occur during a war. For example, Hagopian et al (2013) surveyed two thousand randomly selected households throughout Iraq, interviewing residents about their family members before and during the US-led invasion and occupation. They estimated that from March 2003-2011 approximately 405,000 deaths occurred as a result of the war, mostly from violence.

However, such studies always have limitations – recall bias, survivor bias (the dead cannot be interviewed), and logistics in surveying high violence areas – meaning that mortality estimates will never be perfect, and Hagopian et al. gave a range around their figure (a 95% uncertainty interval of 48,000 to 751,000 excess deaths). Whatever the exact number, which we will probably never know, we can still be confident that mortality rates increased during the war years.  

The same challenges apply to all wars, including one that I have been interested in for a while – the Second Indochina War in LaosThe Australian historian Martin Stuart-Fox wrote that: “loss of life can only be guessed at, but 200,000 dead and twice that number of wounded would be a conservative estimate” (1997: 144). Mortality estimates for Laos are further complicated by the fact that it was one the least developed countries in Asia at the time of the war, likely with unreliable census data and other record keeping (though, for those who are interested, see the 1961 Joel Halpern “Laos Project Papers” from UCLA, which contain demographic and health statistics).

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