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.”

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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 2020): 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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Good Works in Laos

Manophet Rice Paddy

Manophet in a rice field near the Plain of Jars

I never do this, but I’m asking people to check out a few sites that do good work related to Laos, and possibly consider donating to them.

The first, The Plain of Jars Project, was recently brought to my attention by its founder, Jon Witsell. This is borne directly out of the Lone Buffalo Foundation, named after Manophet Lonebuffalo, who I wrote about on this blog a couple of years ago after I learned that he had passed away from a stroke (and far too young). 

I met Manophet in the town of Phonsavanh in 2009 on a trip that was very meaningful to me. I only knew him for a few days, but he made an impression. I saw some of the good work he did with children and teenagers, teaching them English in his home and coaching football (soccer) in the field across the road. Those were his evening jobs. In the day, he also worked for the Japanese Mine Action Service, which helps remove the bombs that the US dropped on Laos during the war years. He was also an excellent tour guide and a single father of three boys.

He seemed to touch the hearts of many, and it’s no wonder that the people at The Plain of Jars Project would want to continue the good work he did. They have a fundraiser at startsomegood.com. The video below explains their goals, which include teaching boys and girls English, soccer, and awareness of avoiding unexploded ordnance (UXO).  Continue reading

Two Million Tons of Bombs over Laos in One Minute

This is a simple, yet powerful, video cataloging the 600,000 bombing missions and 2 million tons of bombs the U.S. dropped over Laos from 1964-73. I’ve never been able to comprehend the scale of the bombing in Laos because it’s hard to get a handle on such large numbers. This short video helps put it into perspective.

The person who made the video, Jerry Redfern, also has a new book out Eternal Harvest: The Legacy of American Bombs in Laos (co-authored with his wife, Karen Coates). 

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Infant Mortality Rates, War & Laos

I finished my dissertation on how the war in Laos was correlated to the physical growth of Hmong refugees in 2004. The general idea was that early stressors, particularly prenatally and in infancy, can have long-term impacts on growth and health. The model I was working with came largely from David Barker’s (and others’) ‘fetal origins hypothesis,’ based on evidence that low birth-weight infants tended to grow up to have higher rates of things like type 2 diabates, coronary heart disease, hypertension, etc. A classmate in graduate school, Stephanie Rutledge, introduced me to Barker’s work and told me that I’d find it really enlightening. I did. Sadly, Barker passed away earlier this year, but his work helped spawn a new direction in research. 

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Bombing of Laos, Animated

The organization Legacies of War shared this animated video on the impacts of U.S. bombing of Laos during the Vietnam War. I thought the filmmaker, Corey Sheldon, put together a very attractive and informative video, although the history is perhaps understandably simplified. Today, the remnants of unexploded bombs are still a problem in Laos, decades after the war has ended, so I think projects like this one are helpful in raising awareness, particularly in the United States.  <div style=”text-align:center”>

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The Lingering Effects of the War in Laos 

Laos: The Not So Secret War 

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Hillary Clinton in Laos

For at least a few days, one of the most emailed article on the New York Times website was a story on Hillary Clinton’s recent visit to Laos, the first there by a U.S. Secretary of State since 1955. As the title of the article suggests (“Vietnam War’s Legacy Is Vivid as Clinton Visits Laos“), much of Clinton’s brief visit pertained to the legacy of the Second Indochina War in Laos.

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Hillary Clinton in Laos (Washington Post)

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My interests in the war in Laos stem from my research on how physical growth and health of Hmong and Lao refugees were affected by living under such conditions as children, and younger. When one confronts the history, it quickly becomes apparent how disproportionate the damage was compared to any strategic or military importance of the country.  In an Op-Ed in the Washington Times,  a number of former U.S. Ambassadors to Laos, including Douglas Hartwick, summarized the history and the fact that civilians were – and continue to be – highly affected:

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Between 1964 and 1973, the U.S. dropped the equivalent of one planeload of bombs every eight minutes, for 24 hours a day – one ton of bombs for each of the 2 million people in Laos at the time, making it the most heavily bombed country per capita in history. These bombings were part of a campaign – kept secret from the American people, not formally authorized by Congress, and in violation of international accords – whose purpose was to deter communist proliferation. But the people who suffered most were ordinary Lao villagers.

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The Meaningful Life of Manophet

Manophet Lonebuffalo was an amiable, kind-hearted man who lived in the small town of Phonsavanh in northeastern Laos. His primary job entailed working for the Japanese Mine Action Service, a nonprofit organization that helps to clear unexploded ordnance in Laos, among other places. But that was only one of many activities that occupied his time. He was also a tour guide for foreigners, a teacher of English, a football coach and referee, and a single father of three boys, at least one of whom was Hmong and adopted.

Manophet stands at his 'podium' (a damaged relic on the Plain of Jars)

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