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LAOS: Unexploded Cluster Bombs Hold Up Farming

Marwaan Macan-Markar

VIENTIANE, Oct 15 2008 (IPS) - As the country affected most by cluster munition in the world Laos is a natural leader in the global campaign to have the deadly ‘bomblets’ banned.

Unexploded munitions dropped from U.S. warplanes over Laos during the Vietnam war.  Credit: Marwaan Macan-Markar/IPS

Unexploded munitions dropped from U.S. warplanes over Laos during the Vietnam war. Credit: Marwaan Macan-Markar/IPS

This month Laos will host a conference aimed at drumming up support from South-east Asian governments for the Cluster Munitions Convention (CMC) – which opens for signature in Oslo, early December. Currently Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand are among countries in the region that have stockpiles, while Singapore is among seven Asian countries that produce these weapons.

The groundbreaking international treaty crossed a milestone in May, when 107 governments agreed to adopt the text of the CMC at a conference in Dublin. It aims to prohibit the use, production, stockpiling and transfer of these munitions, resembling a tennis ball and stone-heavy.

‘’When implemented, the convention will provide direct benefits to affected communities through increased efforts to clear areas contaminated by cluster munitions, thus saving lives and returning lands for agriculture and other productive activity,’’ said Peter Herby, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross’s (ICRC) arms unit, shortly after the Dublin meeting.

This is good news for Laos, since it desperately needs help to clear unexploded ordnances (UXOs). Today, 14 of the 17 provinces in this landlocked, poverty-stricken country have quantities of cluster munitions – or ‘’bombies’’ as they are known in Laos – still buried in the soil.

Its current predicament stems from the deadly legacy of the U.S. war in Vietnam, Laos’ eastern neighbour, which ended over three decades ago with Washington withdrawing its troops in defeat. In that conflict, U.S. bombers dropped more than two million tons of bombs over Laos, which, according to U.N. data, is more than the explosives dropped in Europe during World War II.

U.S. aircraft launched nearly half a million bombing missions from 1964 to 1973 to target North Vietnam’s supply route, known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail, in eastern Laos. This theatre of war in a country that had posed no threat to Washington was kept a secret from the U.S. public during and after the conflict ended.

Most of these explosive devices – some 260 million – were cluster munitions, which were dropped in loads, ranging from 300 to 600 packed into larger bombs. Of these, there was a nearly 30 percent failure rate, triggering a dangerous climate that has resulted in people being maimed and killed as the ‘’bombies’’ explode, even 35 years after they were dropped.

‘’There are still some 78 million bombies remaining of the 260 million that were dropped,’’ says Edwin Faigmane, programme technical advisor to UXO Lao, a national initiative to clear cluster munitions affiliated with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). ‘’So far 395,245 UXOs have been destroyed from 1996 till July 2008, which is about 0.47 percent.’’

‘’Clearing UXOs is a very slow process. If the bombs are hit with a spike they can explode and have the power to kill or to penetrate armour’’ he added during an interview in the Laotian capital. ‘’The (cluster munitions) convention is important for Laos to receive more money for clearance. It is aiming for 11 million dollars per year from international donors.’’

Such funds are pivotal in helping a third of the country’s nearly six million people living in abject poverty, since a majority of them reside in the rural areas that suffered the worst from the U.S. bombings. ‘’Eighty percent of the population live in rural areas, and it is these parts that are contaminated with UXOs,’’ says Tom Morgan, spokesman for the Laos office of the Mine Advisory Group (MAG), a British humanitarian organisation.

‘’In places where there are UXOs, poverty is worse. There is a direct link between the two,’’ he added in an interview. ‘’In the heavily contaminated areas the land cannot be farmed and people are afraid to expand the land they have for agriculture. There is probably an accident every day in these villages.’’

This link – that UXOs have crippled the country’s economy and exacerbated poverty – was echoed in a report released by the World Food Programme (WFP). ‘’UXO contamination continues to be an obstacle to agriculture production, thus reducing the potential livelihood outcomes,’’ the U.N. food agency states in ‘Laos: Comprehensive Food Security and Vulnerability Analysis’.

‘’Seventeen percent of households living in villages with UXO problems have poor or borderline food consumption against 12 percent of households in other villages,’’ the report adds, ‘’UXO clearance should be an integral part of livelihood support aiming to enhance agriculture production.’’

This reality cannot be sidestepped by international donors committed to lifting rural Laos out of poverty, says Patchamuthu Illangovan, Laos country manager for the World Bank. ‘’Any donor working in the rural areas needs to address the UXO problem.’’

But attracting international attention – and the consequent development funds – has been a challenge here, he revealed to IPS. ‘’The international community does not know the extent of the problem because Laos is treated as a small country on the margins of this region.’’

Laos wants to shake off the tag of being a least developed country but the cluster munitions are a problem. ''Our national development will be delayed. The country will not achieve its goal of graduating from its least-developed status by 2020,’’ Lt. Gen. Duangchay Phichit, the deputy prime minister, told the diplomatic corps in Vientiane earlier this year.

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