The Secret War in Laos
Background to the Secret War
Even if you don’t know the full story, I’m sure you’ve heard of the Second Indochina or Vietnam War. But what about the so-called ‘Secret War’ that was conducted by the United States in the neighbouring country of Laos. Me neither.
In the 1960s, the biggest fear in the West was the rise of communism, and no-where did this struggle become more apparent than in South East Asia. With the close geographical influence of China looming, America stepped in to try and stop the spread of communism from the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) into South Vietnam. To keep the supply lines open to their troops in the south, Northern Vietnam forces set up a network of supply lines through Laos and Cambodia which became known as the ‘Ho Chi Minh Trail’.
It was in an attempt to close down these supply lines that, between 1964 and 1973, the United States dropped 280 million cluster munitions onto Laos, despite the fact that the two countries were never officially at war. This involved over 500,000 bombing runs, the equivalent of a plane-load of bombs being dropped every eight minutes for nine years.
This horrific set of numbers means more bombs were dropped on Laos, than on Europe during World War II, giving Laos the rather unwanted accolade of being the most bombed country per capita in the world.
There’s one more shocking set of statistics that accompany the figures above.
A third of all the bombs dropped by the United States didn’t detonate, that’s 80 million.
25% of villages in the country have unexploded ordnance in them, and they are still present in 15 out of the 18 provinces. This means many provinces are struggling to escape poverty, as the presence of the devices limits agricultural expansion as well as preventing infrastructure such as roads and power lines from being built safely.
Quite a legacy.
The Human Cost
More than 50,000 people have been killed or maimed by these so called UXO (Unexploded Ordnance) in the 45 years since the war ended. Of these, 40% of them are children.
This is an average of 997 people a year killed, injured or maimed by UXOs. The bulk of victims were of active working age between ages 15 and 35 years.
The most dangerous of these are the ‘bombies’ and ‘pineapple bombs’, which to small children look like a toy. The bombies especially – which were dropped in groups of 300-500 out of a larger shell – look like small balls to play with. A devastating combination.
The Lao National Unexploded Ordnance Project
UXO Lao has been operational since 1996 and has so far cleared 1.4 million unexploded items from across Laos.
It works not only to clear minefields and unexploded ordnance, but also to educate children as to the dangers they present, and what to do if they find them.
The numbers of casualties from UXOs has dropped by 85% in the last decade, with less than 50 casualties in 2014 as a result of the clearance and education programs that have been undertaken.
The following quote was taken from official Lao PDR Website:
“In more recent years, effective mine risk education and the clearance of high risk areas have seen the number of casualties dropping from 300 casualties in 2008 and 119 casualties in 2010 to 45 casualties in 2014.”
The UXO Museum, Luang Prabang
Whilst the UXO museum does not make everyone’s ‘must visit’ list for Luang Prabang, if you truly want to understand the challenges this nation has faced, this has to be an essential stop off. This was the first of an intended four week stay in Laos for us, so we felt it was important to understand this aspect of life in Laos, which remains a daily reality for many people.
- Opening Hours: 0800-1200 & 1300-1600, Monday-Friday
- Entrance Fee: None, but there is a big donation box by the entrance, use it!
- Location: Phothisan Road | Behind the Chao Anouvoung Monument, Luang Prabang 0600, Laos. It is about a 20 minute walk from the main hub of Luang Prabang around the National Museum.
A Reality Check – The UXO Museum Movie
There are no punches pulled at the UXO Museum.
On first arrival you are shepherded into a small room beside the main display to watch two movies, one which gives a background to the ‘Secret War’ and the other which is an awareness campaign created by UNICEF to try and educate future generations of Lao children.
The stories in the UNICEF video were heart wrenching .
On one a small child from a local village is digging for worms, when he hits a bombie and his right eye is blown out. The family had no money to send him to hospital, so he was treated with herbal medicine, through unimaginable pain. He has lost his sight completely on one side, and now struggles with basic tasks.
In another, three girls are lighting a fire to cook the fish that their mother is catching a couple of hundred yards away. Their fire lights an UXO that was under the surface. One girl damages her left arm, one loses her hand, the youngest is killed.
In another we hear from a boy who found a small bombie when out hunting for birds with a slingshot. This was long before any education programs had been rolled out, so he assumed it was a rock. It exploded as he tried to smash it into smaller pieces to put in his slingshot. He lost his right hand and three fingers from his left hand, as well as leaving him with mixed hearing and scaring across his face. he has since become a recluse, leaving school because he couldn’t write, and embarrassed to spend time with his former friends. He now does basic tasks on his family’s farm: cleaning rice, tending to livestock and sweeping the yard.
There were two themes that struck me about these videos.
Firstly, 75% of the Laos workforce are farmers, meaning the chances of them and their family coming into contact with UXOs are incredibly high.
Secondly, in a country where manual work forms such a large part of life, the injuries we saw in the videos are even more debilitating that in the UK, where a larger proportion of the workforce are in more administrative roles. That’s not to say injuries like this wouldn’t be life-changing to anyone, however if your income relies on your productivity, and there are no benefits to support you, loss of limbs and sight leave many people unable to support their families.
The UXO Museum Displays
The rest of the museum is in a single room, filled with incredible informative displays and a formidable array of unexploded ordnance and the brutal tools of war recovered from around Laos.
It won’t take you more than about 15 minutes to read through and take in everything, so try and learn everything you can from the information available.
Mines and Grenades
Once you’ve been to the UXO Museum in Luang Prabang (and I really hope you do), you will probably want to learn some more.
Here are some articles I’ve found that might make some useful reading:
The main website of UXOLAO, which gives you full details of their incredible work. As a starter, read all the articles under the ‘The UXO Problem’ tab.
This article really brings home the human element of the UXO problem. Watch the videos at the top to experience some stories which are similar to the ones we saw at the museum.
We say lots of jewellery for sale in the night market at Luang Prabang claiming to be made from recycled shells. This article offers a different view on whether or not it’s a good thing.
In 2016, Barack Obama became the first sitting US president to visit Laos, and doubled the funding to supporting Laos to $90 million. This article gives some more background to his visit.
This article doesn’t pull any punches about the United States’ involvement in Laos, using strong language such as ‘war crimes’, which is not common in most writing about Laos.