Asia-Pacific, Headlines

THAILAND: Toxic Legacy of the Vietnam War

Boonthan Sakanond

BANGKOK, May 19 1999 (IPS) - It is a stench from Thailand’s dirty involvement in the Vietnam War that is coming back to haunt the country.

Last February, workers upgrading a runway at an airport in Hua Hin, 100 kms south of Bangkok, fell ill after uncovering five drums of a chemical suspected to be the deadly ‘Agent Orange’ herbicide used by the US Air Force against Vietnamese troops.

While debate continues on whether or not the chemical is really Agent Orange or just an ingredient of the herbicide, the discovery has thrown up serious questions about the culpability of previous Thai regimes in the Vietnam War and the negative legacy it has left behind.

Adding to public outrage over the issue is the revelation that the US Air Force tested the carcinogenic chemical on Thai territory prior to its use in Vietnam.

From 1961 to 1971, US warplanes sprayed vast areas in southern Vietnam with more than 72 million litres of chemical herbicide, of which a major portion was Agent Orange. More than two million hectares of inland mangrove forest and agricultural land was affected by the spraying which was undertaken ostensibly to defoliate forests used by anti-US Vietnamese guerillas for cover.

The US embassy in Bangkok, while denying that the chemical found at Hua Hin had anything to do with Agent Orange, however admitted that the carcinogenic chemical was indeed tested near a Thai Army base in Prachuab Khiri Khan’s Pranburi district, not far from Hua Hin.

“The US military had tested Agent Orange in Thailand between April 1964 and June 1965 with the full knowledge of the Thai authorities,” a US embassy spokesman said in Bangkok, two months after the discovery was made, citing declassified CIA reports.

The Thai government, while setting up a committee to identify the chemical, has also stated that the United States should share responsibility for the toxic substances and provide part of the costs that will be incurred in cleaning it up. The Thai ministry of science has estimated that treating the chemical and the contaminated soil will cost between 15 and 20 million baht.

“Once the identification (of the chemical) has been completed, we will talk to the US about the issue of responsibility,” Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai was quoted as saying after a cabinet meeting to consider the issue.

The Thai government’s handling of the issue, however, has come under attack from critics who fear that the authorities are trying to hide the true nature of the chemical found in order to prevent affected people from raising claims for compensation.

“The lack of information from both the Thai and US authorities only goes to heighten public suspicion that they have something to hide,” said an editorial in the Bangkok based daily The Nation.

It said that by not giving detailed information on the mystery chemical, both the Thai and US authorities have inadvertently put the health of residents and the environment at risk.

Apart from the immediate area where the chemical was found there are fears that hundreds of villagers living near the forests where Agent Orange was tested three decades ago might have been affected.

Studies conducted by Vietnamese, Russian and even independent US scientists have shown exposure to Agent Orange as being responsible for at least eight disease categories, including soft tissue cancer.

According to Vietnamese authorities, as many as two million people were exposed to the toxic chemicals and up to 50,000 deformed children have been born to parents exposed to the chemicals.

The long-term impact of Agent Orange has been confirmed recently by a four-year series of medical investigations by Canadian researchers in southern Vietnam which showed extraordinary levels of poisonous dioxins in the soil, food chain and even in children’s bloodstreams.

“Those responsible for the use of Agent Orange in the Vietnam War should be held responsible for cleaning up the poison,” says James Forsyth, a British writer and researcher who has campaigned for international attention towards the continued plight of victims of Agent Orange and cluster bombs used by the US forces during the war.

In Thailand, apart from the immediate issue of identifying and limiting the damage due to testing and storage of Agent Orange on its territory, there are also prickly issues from the country’s dictatorial past that have cropped up.

One question being asked by the media, environmentalists and citizen groups for example, is about who in previous Thai governments was responsible for allowing US testing of Agent Orange on Thai territory.

“The matter cannot be allowed to pass without anyone taking responsibility for the chemicals found buried at Hua Hin,” said a commentary in the Thai daily ‘Baan Muang’.

Pinning down responsibility for the unwarranted presence and actions of US troops in Thailand may however prove to be a sensitive task given the fact that almost the entire Thai military and bureaucratic establishment was involved in allowing the country to be used as a major staging point for over a decade during the Vietnam War.

Thailand, then under the dictatorship of Air Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn, had allowed the US to use six air bases to stage military operations against Vietnam.

“Thailand is a direct accessory to the crimes that are committed by the American air force in North and South Vietnam, as well as in Laos,” said a report by a War Crimes Tribunal set up in 1969 under the chairmanship of anti-war campaigner and renowned British philosopher Bertrand Russell.

According to the report, which describes Thailand as “an American fortress in Asia”, by granting air and naval bases for use by the United States, Thailand had made possible the American escalation of the war during the mid-sixties.

Not surprisingly both the Thai Department of Aviation and the Thai Air Force — responsible for all operations at the Hua Hin airport where the chemicals were found — have claimed they have no records of any US activity in the area during the sixties.

“Using the airport as a centre for developing dangerous chemical compounds would not be logistically feasible since Hua Hin is so far from Vietnam and not in a remote area,” claimed Chaisak Angkasuwan, deputy director-general of the Thai Department of Aviation.

Given such obfuscation of facts, it would appear that loss of historical memory can safely be added to the list of diseases that the dreaded Agent Orange is supposed to cause in human beings.

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