The secret war and finding COPE

We are in Laos now and I will take a little time away from the travel journal and move into a topic that Michel and I are interested in. On our first trip to Laos we learned about the number of unexploded ordinances left here during the Vietnam war. We are resolved to learn more about UXO on this trip and share with others.

Sculpture made of UXO at Cope Entrance

Sculpture made of UXO at Cope Entrance

For myself, I am surprised to learn how much I did not know about what happened in Laos. I was very aware of the Vietnam war and remember standing up in junior high school and arguing in favor of Nixon and against McGovern in 1972. Amusing as I think of it now as I really had no idea what was actually going on. Certainly most of us could not know what truly happened in Laos until the information was declassified in 2007.

There was covert war in Laos from 1964 to 1975 aka The Secret War. It was covert because a UN agreement existed that designated Laos as neutral from foreign military intervention. The USA secretly supplied weapons and military training to the local tribes in effort to stop the supply of weapons from the Soviet Union for Vietnam and to stabilize the region ( not a complete summary but all I will attempt for now).

Hanging cluster bombs

Hanging cluster bombs

Please bear with me here but a few statistics are necessary:

Lao PDR is the most heavily bombed country, per capita, in history
Approximately 25% of villages in Laos are contaminated with Unexploded Ordnance (UXO)
More than 580,000 bombing missions were conducted over Laos
Over 2 million tons of ordnance were dropped on Laos between 1964 and 1973
Cluster-bombs or ‘Bombies’ (as they are known locally) are the most common form of UXO remaining
More than 270 million bombies were dropped onto Laos Up to 30% failed to detonate
Approximately 80 million unexploded bombies remained in Laos after the war
All 17 provinces of Laos suffer from UXO contamination

The statistics alone really tell most of the story. The volume is astounding and the fact that all of those unexploded bombs remain in the fields of the locals to this day is disturbing.

Following our quest to learn more about UXO and their impact on Laos we learned about an organization called COPE (Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise) in Vientiane.
We toured their facilities and watched presentations about some of the families who have been physically wounded while working on their farms. Approximately 1000 adults and children are injured or killed by UXO every year.

Disturbing COPE display

Disturbing COPE display

COPE display

COPE display

UXO are so common in Laos that many families use parts from the bombs as tools around the farms. One local was blinded as he was using a UXO to hold up his cooking stove. The heat from the fire finally causing it to explode.

Cow Bell made from morter

Cow Bell made from morter

Oil lamp made from morter

Oil lamp made from morter

There are many more stories to tell like the story of Air America (more then just a Mel Gibson movie) and Long Tien (Long Cheng) which was the most active landing strip in the late sixties and seventies. How the T48s that landed there had to drop unused bombs on the area prior to landing for their own safety. About the Hmong people who aided us during the war and were left behind without aid in 1974. We’ll share pictures and more stories as we move on through Laos.

It is all very emotional and disturbing, especially since the average American in my age group or younger is probably unaware of the issues and the fact that the US participated in such a travesty and is not currently instrumental in helping resolve it.

If you are interested in getting involved we have a few websites for you:
COPE. http://www.copelaos.com
MAG. http://www.maginternational.org/where-mag-works/laos/#.Ul34assaySN
UXOLaos http://www.uxolao.org

Other sources of information are:
http://www.preservingourhistory.com/

Note: I fully admit that I am learning about this as I go. Please to not hesitate to point out any errors that I make in my information gathering or suggest places that I can go to learn more.



Categories: Laos travel

Tags: ,

9 replies

  1. Really disturbing. Thank you.

  2. So interesting Claire. How terrible that the people there are still living with the affects of that war and the bombs we left behind. I wonder what the efforts were/are to clean it up. I would like to think we would have gone back to clean up but since the communists retained power and we essentially lost in our efforts to free the people there from socialism/communism/marxism I guess we just pulled out and left and would not have been welcome at that time in any restoration efforts because we were the enemy of the new government. I think it is so important to keep the facts in mind and not allow ourselves to be swayed by propaganda from the different groups past and present since it is easy to be mislead when you just listen to one side. I’m sure the information/propaganda in the country is anti US involvement in this. But at the time the people had not chosen the government that was being thrust upon them, and 25% of the population (if I have the numbers straight from Wikepedia) was killed by the communist forces since voting/choice was not part of the process. If you opposed them or were too educated and might be a threat in your thinking then you would be killed. The US did relocate some 250,000 refugees from Loas to the US at that time. You probably already know this but the history of the wars that have affected the region are something like this according to Wikepedia…..

    Following a brief Japanese occupation during World War II, the country declared its independence on 12 October 1945, but the French under Charles de Gaulle re-asserted control. In 1950 Laos was granted semi-autonomy as an “associated state” within the French Union. France remained in de facto control until 22 October 1953, when Laos gained full independence as a constitutional monarchy.

    In 1955, the U.S. Department of Defense created a special Programs Evaluation Office to replace French support of the Royal Lao Army against the communist Pathet Lao as part of the U.S. containment policy.

    In 1960, amidst a series of rebellions, fighting broke out between the Royal Lao Army and the communist Pathet Lao. A second Provisional Government of National Unity formed by Prince Souvanna Phouma in 1962 proved to be unsuccessful, and the situation steadily deteriorated into large scale civil war between the Royal Laotian government and the Pathet Lao. The Pathet Lao were backed militarily by the NVA and Vietcong.

    Laos was also dragged into the Vietnam War since parts of Laos were invaded and occupied by North Vietnam for use as a supply route for its war against the South. In response, the United States initiated a bombing campaign against the North Vietnamese positions, supported regular and irregular anticommunist forces in Laos and supported South Vietnamese incursions into Laos.

    In 1968 the North Vietnamese Army launched a multi-division attack to help the Pathet Lao to fight the Royal Lao Army. The attack resulted in the army largely demobilizing, leaving the conflict to irregular forces raised by the United States and Thailand.

    Massive aerial bombardment against Pathet Lao and invading NVA communist forces was carried out by the United States to prevent the collapse of Laos’ central government, the Royal Kingdom of Laos, and to prevent the use of the Ho Chi Minh Trail to attack U.S. forces in South Vietnam and the Republic of Vietnam. As of 2008, Laos is the most heavily bombed country, per capita, in the world. An average of one B-52 bomb-load was dropped on Laos every eight minutes, 24-hours-a-day, between 1964 and 1973.[22] Due to the particularly heavily impact of cluster bombs during this war, Laos was a strong advocate of the Convention on Cluster Munitions to ban the weapons and assist victims, and hosted the First Meeting of States Parties to the convention in November 2010.[23]

    In 1975 the Pathet Lao, along with the Vietnam People’s Army and backed by the Soviet Union, overthrew the royalist Lao government, forcing King Savang Vatthana to abdicate on 2 December 1975. He later died in captivity. Between 20,000 and 70,000 Laotians died during the Civil War.[24][25][26][27]

    On 2 December 1975, after taking control of the country, the Pathet Lao government under Kaysone Phomvihane renamed the country as the Lao People’s Democratic Republic and signed agreements giving Vietnam the right to station armed forces and to appoint advisers to assist in overseeing the country. Laos was requested in 1979 by the Socialist Republic of Vietnam to end relations with the People’s Republic of China, leading to isolation in trade by China, the United States, and other countries.

    The conflict between Hmong rebels and the Vietnam People’s Army of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV), as well as the SRV-backed Pathet Lao continued in various pockets in key areas of Laos, including in Saysaboune Closed Military Zone (Xaisamboune Closed Military Zone near Vientiane Province and Xieng Khouang Province. The government of Laos has been accused of committing genocide, human rights and religious freedom violations against the Hmong in collaboration with the Vietnamese army,[28][29][30] with up to 100,000 killed out of a population of 400,000.[31][32] From 1975 to 1996, the United States resettled some 250,000 Lao refugees from Thailand, including 130,000 Hmong.

    • Once again, good research on your part. I too have been performing research on the web. My only words of warning here are that propaganda can go both ways. I understand Cold War thinking, like you, in someways better then most having grown up in with a conservative political background. I am working hard not to have too much of an opinion as I write this blog. But there is a pattern of behavior on the part of the US that was demonstrated in the Cold War and continues to be the accepted way of thinking now. That we have a responsibility to step in and solve the problem. In the case of Laos we were again following this doctrine.

    • However, I strongly believe it is time for us to reconsider this philosophy. Or at least for these tasks to be taken over at a multinational level. I don’t believe that we were really just the good guys in Laos and I don’t believe the Laos government is stopping us from helping with the clean-up of UXO now.

      • I would hope we would help with cleanup of UXO now and relations with such countries would be more friendly now. But as to our involvement back then, I would imagine many wanted our involvement/help and those in favor of communism/revolution did not. I wonder what the proportion was then. Of course they did not get to choose/vote. It was forced on them by a group of people. Given that the people of that country are not free today to live and believe as their conscience/God (or whatever they want to believe) dictates is case and point though. I would imagine the anti- US sentiments run high as they would have been taught that our involvement was wrong. If we were just bombing the heck out of the entire country that really stinks, as opposed to more focused attacks on the communist forces. I don’t know much details. But I do know we were trying to stop communism/socialist ideology because it was and is dangerous to liberty of humanity. Of course one could decide that liberty is not a good thing and that socialism/communism is necessary, but then one has to look at history and who they are climbing into bed with and what the outcome of those ideologies is. But should we be the enforcer? I don’t know that we can afford it anymore, but when freedom is being threatened, whether it is my neighbor being kidnapped, our a country, we all have a moral obligation not to look the other way. To help the oppressed group. To be peace makers not peace keepers. Although even basic morality such as that is being challenged today and many people do look the other way today when they see a need and want the government to take care of it. Interesting discussion anyway! 🙂

  3. JC and I learned about this when we were there in the mid 90’s, 25 years after the U.S military dropped over 2m tons of bombs on Laos, more than was dropped on Germany and Japan combined during WW2. It’s a disgrace that UXO have still not been cleared.
    Here’s an old but still relevant article about it, if you haven’t already seen it.
    http://mondediplo.com/2008/06/09laos

    Unfortunately the story is still current, you could submit an up to date article with pix … spread the info around…
    XOXO/Brigitte

    • Wow, thanks for,that article, well written. I hope to share more of what I am learning with people back home. The saddest part now being there is money to be made by sending your kids into the fields to look for UXO. I feel like standing in front of the people selling spoons made out of bomb parts and protesting.

  4. unfortunately we did the same in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Yemen; Israël is doing the same in the Gaza Strip! it just never ends…

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