In Laos, a farmer picks through a deadly harvest while distrust stalls political action on a cluster bomb ban
The jungle has long since grown to reclaim the old rice fields and the houses that once stood here. But Khambou Many can still picture what happened the day the bombs fell from the sky and burned his home to the ground.
“I remember it up until now,” the 50-year-old farmer said quietly. He gestured toward the distance, to where a river curved around the bend. A paved highway now wound its way up a hill toward his old home.
“Before, this village was located over there,” Khambou said. “But there was a big bombing. Then the houses caught fire. People had to run away from the village.”
Khambou was only a child during the years of the Vietnam War. For his family and others in this village in south-eastern Laos, the damage was a matter of circumstance: his village sat along the makeshift supply route that came to be known as the Ho Chi Minh trail.
The North Vietnamese army used the network of old footpaths and trails hacked from the jungle to bypass the demilitarized zone separating the north from the south.
Nor far from here, the North Vietnamese kept a munitions dump, storing key supplies like ammunition and fuel. Under cover of night, the convoys would descend the steep banks and attempt to cross the river. It was a natural choke point on the route and the U.S. military exploited it. When the trail backed up, American bombers struck.
A sea of red
U.S. planes hit this area at least three times around the early 1970s, according to data used by the group Norwegian People’s Aid, which runs a de-mining operation here.
The cluster bombs they used dispersed in mid-air; each weapon unleashed hundreds of smaller sub-munitions. The old records suggest each of the bombings, flown by a pair of interceptor jets, dropped more than 5,000 individual cluster sub-munitions each time. But with an estimated 30 percent failure rate for the sub-munitions, or bombies, as villagers here call them, the effects of the long-ended war linger to this day.
These days, most reminders of the conflict that destroyed his village are buried. And that’s part of the problem. The cluster bombs have littered overgrown fields throughout this part of the country. If you were to plot each air strike on a map – each strike a tiny red dot – the area would be awash in a sea of red.
De-miners here used flight records from those bombings to map out estimates of the contamination. The massive footprints have left a deadly mark along the winding river, over the distant ridge and through the unproductive fields of Khambou’s village.
The bombs have trapped the farmer and his family and other villagers in this area in a cycle of poverty. Unable to use their own land to grow crops, they’re forced to buy basic necessities like rice and vegetables from other villages.
“We can’t grow anything on the land now,” Khambou said. “We want to plant rice in other villages, but they won’t allow us. We used to try, but they said, ‘No, this is our village. You’re not allowed to do farming in our village. You have your own land.’ But we say we can’t because there are cluster bombs there.”
It’s a situation that is repeated throughout parts of the region most affected by the once secret US air strikes. The Ho Chi Minh trail stretched from Vietnam, through south-eastern Laos and down to Cambodia. All along the way, the trail is littered with the remnants of war. Accidents, many involving impoverished farmers digging on their land or children playing in contaminated fields, still kill or maim hundreds in this region each year.
But while the second Indochina war linked all three countries in an ideological conflict, today, their respective governments have taken divergent approaches to resolving the lingering problem of cluster bombs.
This month in Vientiane, representatives from more than 100 governments met as part of the first meeting of states parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions – the international treaty banning the use of cluster bombs. But of the three Indochina countries, only Laos has signed and ratified the accord, something that has frustrated disarmament advocates who had hoped the countries most affected by the weapons would stand united on the issue and offer a potent symbol for the world’s major users of the weapons – including the United States – who have refused to sign on.
Of Asean member states, only Laos, seen as the most heavily bombed country on earth, has both signed and ratified the treaty. Indonesia and the Philippines have signed on but not ratified. Though many of Laos’s neighbours have indicated they intend to sign the cluster bomb ban at some point, observers say long-standing rivalries between neighbours in the region are playing a role in delaying such action.
“There’s a lack of mutual trust among countries in Southeast Asia,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. “The cluster bombs convention is a case in point.”
Tensions continue to simmer, for example, between Thailand and Cambodia, mainly over a dispute over land adjacent to the Preah Vihear temple area, or Phra Viharn, as it is known in Thailand.
Cambodia was seen as a leader in negotiating the terms of the cluster bomb treaty and encouraging its neighbours to back it as well. But when the treaty was opened for signing in December 2008, Cambodia surprised observers by reversing course.
“Cambodia certainly recognises the great importance of and fully supports this treaty,” Hor Nambora, Cambodia’s Ambassador to the United Kingdom, said at the time.
“However, due to the recent security development, Cambodia now needs more time to study the impacts of the convention on its security capability and national defence.”
Almost two years have passed, and the country appears to be no closer to signing. The Vientiane conference closed this month and both Cambodia and Vietnam remain on the sidelines.
“When it comes to the neighbourhood directly, few countries want to be inhibited by treaties vis-à-vis their neighbours, especially those with common borders,” Thitinan said. “So it’s a prisoners’ dilemma of sorts.”
This sort of distrust has affected decision makers throughout the region.
Denise Coghlan, director of the group Jesuit Refugee Services in Cambodia and a long-time campaigner against land mines and cluster bombs, says government representatives she has spoken with often point to their neighbours when explaining why their country has not yet signed. When our neighbour agrees to it, they say, that’s when we also will.
“Different countries point to the fact that Singapore was not on board,” Coghlan said, noting that Singapore still produces the controversial weapons and maintains that states should be allowed to use them for self-defence.
“Others point to the fact that Thailand or Vietnam were not on board.”
Coghlan sees the delays in signing as a product of behind-the-scenes disagreements between a state’s decision makers and its military.
“I would say that in most countries there is some difference of opinion between the diplomatic officials who want to sign on and the defence ministries,” Coghlan said.
“The defence ministries are much more wary about denying themselves the use of any weapons.”
Countries in the region also say the costs of destroying existing stockpiles represent a significant barrier to signing the treaty, since the convention obligates states parties to eliminate their stockpiles within eight years – as well as guarantee support services to cluster bomb survivors.
It is believed that Cambodia possesses a limited stockpile of cluster bombs, though their condition and the military’s ability to deploy them are a question mark. Vietnam’s own stockpiles are less than clear. Neither country is believed to have ever used the weapons.
But the sort of wariness of countries in the region to officially backing the treaty, Coghlan argues, is becoming increasingly out of date as other nations around the world sign on. So far, 108 countries have joined; of these, 48 have ratified the treaty and have committed to its terms.
“I don’t think any of them are ever going to use cluster bombs. Imagine dropping cluster bombs on the country next door to you. It’s almost unbelievable,” she says.
“Maybe they think it gives them some advantage on paper to think that they still have another weapon in their arsenal. But it’s a weapon that you can’t really use. It doesn’t seem to be much of an advantage to me.”
But while Southeast Asian countries wait to sign the treaty, some risk being left out of crucial donor funds targeted toward the removal of cluster bombs and other unexploded ordnance.
By hosting November’s conference, Laos had become a symbol of the cluster bomb problem. And when the Vientiane conference wrapped up, foreign governments had announced $6.7 million in new funding specifically for Laos – representing nearly 60 per cent of de-mining funds from donor countries for all of last year. In the meantime, officials in Cambodia have warned that de-mining funding has waned in recent months and could jeopardise future operations.
Back in Sekong, villagers in tiny Ban Lavi Fangdeng go about their daily lives, knowing the tiny bombies may be just underfoot.
Just steps away from where the old Ho Chi Minh trail descends along a rocky slope, farmer Khammun, 45, has built a small hut and a modest crop of beans.
“We just try to walk where we know it’s safe,” said Khammun, who uses only one name. “But the children, they don’t know. You never know when they might find something.”
De-mining operations are active in the area, but progress is expensive and time-consuming. Khammun isn’t sure when the de-miners will reach his land.
“I want it all to be cleared,” he said. “I don’t want any more bombs on my land.”
This story was first published in The Diplomat.