VIENTIANE, LAOS — Decades after the U.S. gave Laos a horrific distinction as the world’s most heavily bombed nation per person, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has pledged to help get rid of millions of unexploded bombs that still pockmark the impoverished country - and still kill.
The U.S. dropped more than 2 million tons of bombs on the North Vietnamese ally during its “secret war” between 1964 and 1973 - about a ton of ordnance for each Laotian man, woman and child. That exceeded the amount dropped on Germany and Japan together in World War II.
Four decades later, American weapons are still claiming lives.
When the war ended, about a third of approximately 270 million cluster bombs dropped on Laos had failed to detonate. More than 20,000 people have been killed by ordnance in Laos since then, according to Laos‘ government, and agricultural development has been stymied.
Mrs. Clinton, gauging whether the nation can evolve into a new foothold of American influence in Asia, met Wednesday with the prime minister and foreign minister, part of a weeklong diplomatic tour of Southeast Asia. The goal is to bolster America’s standing in some of the fastest-growing markets of the world and counter China’s expanding economic, diplomatic and military dominance of the region.
Mrs. Clinton said she and the Laotian leaders “traced the arc of our relationship from addressing the tragic legacies of the past to finding a way to being partners of the future.”
Laos is the latest test case of the Obama administration’s efforts to “pivot” U.S. foreign policy away from the long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The efforts follow a long period of estrangement between Washington and a former Cold War-era foe and come as U.S. relations also warm with countries such as Myanmar and Vietnam.
In her meetings, Mrs. Clinton discussed environmental concerns over a proposed dam on the Mekong River as well as investment opportunities and the joint efforts to clean up the unexploded bombs dropped across Laos over what once was called the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Greater U.S. support for programs in those fields will be included in a multimillion-dollar initiative for Southeast Asia to be announced this week.
Mrs. Clinton visited a Buddhist temple and a U.S.-funded prosthetic center for victims of American munitions. There she met a man named Phongsavath Souliyalat, who told her how he had lost both his hands and his eyesight from a cluster bomb on his 16th birthday, four years ago.
“We have to do more,” Mrs. Clinton told him. “That’s one of the reasons I wanted to come here today, so that we can tell more people about the work that we should be doing together.”
Although the U.S. bombed Laos to loosen its alliance with the North Vietnamese, the current Vietnamese government focuses its efforts in Laos on recovering its own dead more than cleaning up unexploded bombs.
Cleanup has been excruciatingly slow. Washington-based Legacies of War says only 1 percent of contaminated lands have been cleared, and it has called on Washington to provide far greater assistance.
The State Department has provided $47 million since 1997, though a larger effort could make Laos “bomb-free in our lifetimes,” said Rep. Michael M. Honda, California Democrat, on Wednesday.