Week 7: A Still War-Torn Country

From 1964-1973, the CIA dropped 270 million sub munitions in over 580,000 bombing campaigns. That’s the equivalent of a bombing mission every 8 minutes 24 hours a day for 9 years. As a result, Laos is the most bombed country per capita in the world ever. While the bombing concluded almost 45 years ago, the impact remains one of Laos’ largest development issues because 30% of these cluster munitions failed to explode, leaving 80 million “bombies” scattered throughout the country. The contaminated area is twice the size of Switzerland.

Most development related organizations in Laos focus on these unexploded ordinances, strengthening the capacity of rule of law (and emphasizing democracy), the turning land into capital initiative (think: CHINESE INVESTMENT, much much much more on this in a later blog post, I am still compiling my thoughts), among other things. However, development initiatives are constantly put on pause as everyone must wait for land to be cleared, square by square, of UXOs. VFI’s Green Earth Center in the Salavan province is partially contaminated. The route for the Sino-Lao train is contaminated. 25% of villages in Laos are contaminated. UXOs are such a large developmental problem that Laos created an 18thSustainable Development Goal.

These statistics are everywhere. Even in Vientiane, you cannot exist in development without being intimately aware of the presence of UXOs. Multiple organizations are working to clear UXOs, but it’s a time and money intensive process. While the work I’ve been doing for the past two months doesn’t involve UXOs, I consider myself very aware of the problem and have visited the multiple museums in Vientiane dedicated to it.

But, being aware of and seeing the impact is completely different. This weekend we were given time off work for the start of Buddhist Lent, so my co-fellows and I took the opportunity to travel to the Northern province of Xieng Khouang. Northern Laos is geographically dominated by the Annamite mountains, but in the middle of Xieng Khouang is the Plain of Jars. This Plain is where fighting & bombing in the First & Second Indochina Wars were centered.

Everywhere we walked in Xieng Khouang, including the Jar Sites (recently named as UNESCO World Heritage Site!!!!), there were bomb craters and trench lines. Signs everywhere dictated which land had been cleared, and where you shouldn’t go. In other words, everywhere besides narrow paths were off limits. Off limit zones included working rice paddies where locals are cognizant that they are farming on top of bombies, but their livelihoods depend on their fields.

Living in a country still struggling to recover from the landscape altering impacts of war makes me incredibly grateful to live in a country where the last major war fought on our soil was the civil war a 150 years ago.

 

One of the requirements of the Freeman & Global Research Institute fellowships are bringing what I’ve learned in Laos back to campus. In the Lao context, this primarily revolves around increasing awareness about UXOs and the Second Indochina War. So, if you are curious to learn more about one of the largest and least discussed development issues in Southeast Asia, check out these links:

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