WASHINGTON, Jul 10 (IPS) - Disarmament activists and former U.S. ambassadors are urging Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to increase U.S. aid to Laos to clear millions of tonnes of unexploded ordinance (UXO) left by U.S. bombers on its territory during the Indochina War during her brief visit to the country Wednesday.The visit, scheduled to last only a few hours on a hectic eight-nation tour by Clinton designed in part to underline the Barack Obama administration's "pivot" from the Middle East to Asia, will nonetheless be historic. No sitting U.S. secretary of state has visited Laos since 1955.
Sources here said Clinton is considering a 100-million-dollar aid commitment to support bomb-clearing efforts over a 10-year period. Such a commitment would more than double the nearly 47 million dollars Washington has provided in UXO assistance since 1997 when it first began funding UXO programmes in Laos.
"While Secretary Clinton's visit celebrates a promising future for U.S.-Lao relations," said Amb. Douglas Hartwick, who served as Washington's envoy in Vientiane from 2001 to 2004, "I hope she also affirms to the Lao people America's steadfast commitment to help Laos and the international community to resolve this legacy once and for all by clearing Lao land of deadly bombs."
Hartwick was one of six former ambassadors to Laos who last year publicly urged Clinton to travel to Laos and adopt the 10-year, 100-million-dollar UXO proposal - originally put forward by a Washington-based organisation, Legacies of War - on her way to or from last year's Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Bali, Indonesia.
Administration policymakers, however, evidently decided to put off the trip until this year's regional summit in Cambodia, Laos's next-door neighbour.
Over the past year, Washington has intensified its courtship of China's southern neighbours, notably Burma with which relations have improved dramatically since Clinton's visit there – also the first by a secretary of state since 1955 – last December. Before arriving in Phnom Penh late Wednesday, she spent Tuesday in Hanoi before traveling on to Vientiane.
Between 1964 and 1973, more than 2.5 million tonnes of U.S. munitions were dropped on Laos – more than was dropped on Germany and Japan combined during World War II – making what was then the poorest country in Southeast Asia the most heavily bombed nation per capita in recorded history.
With some 2.5 million inhabitants at the time, an average of one tonne of bombs was dropped for every man, woman and child in Laos.
Up to 30 percent of the bombs failed to detonate. Their remnants not only cause several hundred casualties of a year, but also effectively prevent Laotian farmers from cultivating hundreds of thousands of hectares of fertile land.
Some 20,000 people have been killed or maimed by UXO over the past 40 years, according to Legacies of War. And an estimated one-third of Lao land is still littered with the deadly ordinance.
Unlike with Vietnam and Cambodia, Washington never severed diplomatic relations with the Communist government that eventually took power in 1975. But it nonetheless took 17 years - until 1992 - for the U.S., whose top priority initially was to account for the nearly 600 U.S. servicemen killed or missing in action in Laos, to fully normalise ties. Normal trade relations were formalised only seven years ago.
Washington first provided funding for UXO clearance in 1997 under President Bill Clinton and maintained aid at an average annual rate of about 2.6 million dollars. In 2009, it rose to 3.5 million dollars and then to five million dollars in 2010. Led by Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy and Republican Sen. Richard Lugar, Congress approved nine million dollars for this year.
The Senate Appropriations Committee has recommended that 10 million dollars be approved for 2013, but that amount could be a harder sell in the Republican-led House of Representatives.
Proponents of the aid are hoping that a public commitment by Clinton will enhance the chances for Congressional approval for the 10 million dollars and a longer-term commitment which they believe will be necessary to leverage additional resources from other donor countries and agencies.
"The people who continue to suffer from the bombings are ordinary Lao villagers," said Channapha Khamvongsa, Legacies' executive director. "We are hopeful that after witnessing the human impact of UXO in Laos first-hand, the Secretary will re-affirm the U.S. commitment to helping Laos solve this problem once and for all."
But the challenge remains formidable. While more than a million UXO are estimated to have been destroyed or cleared to date, it is believed that nearly 80 million UXO are still scattered across the country.
"UXO/mine action is the absolute pre-condition for the socio-economic development of (Laos)," according to a two-year-old study by the U.N. Development Programme which has worked with the government of Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong to develop a plan to focus clearance efforts on high-priority areas.
"(E)conomic opportunities in tourism, hydroelectric power, mining, forestry and many other areas of activity considered main engines of growth for the Lao (Peoples Democratic Republic) are restricted, complicated and made more expensive," according to UNDP which has estimated the funding needs to significantly reduce the UXO problem in Laos at 30 million dollars a year sustained over a 10-year period.
While the U.S. is the single largest donor to the UXO programme, other donors, notably Japan, the European Commission, Ireland, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Germany, and Australia, as well as U.N. agencies, have also contributed to the programme.
Led chiefly by the UXO funding, Washington's total bilateral aid programme to Laos has grown from about five million dollars in 2007 to 12 million dollars for the current year. In addition to the nine million dollars for the UXO programme, Washington has focused aid on the health sector and counter-narcotics.
In a related development Monday, Human Rights Watch urged Clinton to halt all aid to the Somsanga drug detention centre until the Lao government conducts a full and independent investigation into human rights abuses allegedly committed against detainees there, including children.
In March, 12 U.N. agencies also called for Somsanga and other drug detention centres in Laos to be closed.
"The Lao government and the U.S. State Department claim that Somsanga is a modern healthcare centre," said Joe Amon, HRW's health and human rights director. "But a decade of U.S. funding hasn't changed the fact that it's a brutal and inhumane detention centre where the Lao government puts ‘undesirable' people."