If you read a newspaper or checked the news online this week you might have noticed that US Secretary of State John Kerry paid a visit to Laos. There wasn’t any particularly urgent need for Kerry to visit the country, but Laos is the latest in a revolving door of countries in Southeast Asia to act as “chairman” for the ASEAN block of nations, and Kerry’s visit was part of the USA’s renewed “engagement” with Asia.
The article that I read noted the “grim legacy” of the Vietnam War era, in which the United States military planes dropped more than 250 million bombs on Laos. Yes, a poor land-locked country that was not even a participant in that unfortunate war became a victim itself. It’s been said, that per capita, Laos was the most bombed country in history.
Another sobering statistic is that more than 30 percent of those bombs failed to explode at the time, but have remained “active” weapons within the country, continuing to maim and kill people all these years later. Since the end of the Vietnam War — and that’s now been 40 years — about 50,000 people in Laos have been killed by these UXO (unexploded ordinance), and tens of thousands more than that have been injured, including loss of limbs.
The best book I have read on this subject is Eternal Harvest: The Legacy of American Bombs in Laos by Karen J. Coates. This isn’t a book that bombards you with a bunch of statistics and is content to lambast the American government for its acts. Instead, it’s a book that shows the human side of the issue. The empathetic and penetrating reportage by Karen Coates takes you inside the lives of the people in various villages and towns around Laos, ones whose lives have been permanently affected by the bombs, and shows you how they cope with this nightmare. It’s a sobering, gripping read.
Meanwhile, we’ll see if Kerry raises the issue of human rights with the Laos government, a secretive communist bunch of thugs in their own right. One of the most disturbing current human rights issues in Laos is the “disappearance” of Sombath Somphone in December 2012. Sombath was a widely respected community development worker in Laos, but apparently his efforts to ensure transparent economic and social development in Laos were considered threatening to the commie rulers. After being stopped by police and taken away in a truck he hasn’t been seen in three years.
Creepy Americans, creepy Laotians … creeps, creeps everywhere. What can you do, expect hope for peace and justice, press for changes … and fight the power. Really, don’t let the assholes win.