Pledge for more aid to Laos to clear unexploded US bombs

US President Barack Obama gestures as he delivers a speech about US-Laos relations at the Lao National Cultural Hall in Vientiane on Sept 6, 2016.
US President Barack Obama gestures as he delivers a speech about US-Laos relations at the Lao National Cultural Hall in Vientiane on Sept 6, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

US President Barack Obama has announced increased aid worth US$90 million (S$121 million) to help Laos clear unexploded bombs, as he sought to deal with the lasting debilitation from the "secret war" against the South-east Asian nation waged by his country some 50 years ago.

Between 1964 and 1973, the United States rained more than two million tonnes of bombs on Laos in a bid to cut off supplies to communist forces in neighbouring Vietnam with which it was fighting a war.

"Even now, many Americans are not fully aware of this chapter in our history and it is important that we remember today," he told hundreds of Laotians at the national culture hall in Vientiane yesterday. It was the second day of his bilateral visit to Laos, the first by a US president.

About one third of those bombs failed to detonate, effectively creating land mines that today continue to maim or kill unsuspecting Laotians who head out to the plains and forests in search of food and other material.

Since 2010, when the US Congress mandated that Washington give at least US$5 million for removing the unexploded ordnance, the funding has risen. This year, Congress allocated US$19.5 million.

Mr Obama yesterday also said that the US will work with Laos to promote nutrition for children and to send in more American teachers to help teach English. "Let Girls Learn", an initiative to help girls around the world get an education, will also be brought to Laos.

To boost sustainable development, he pledged to work with the country to pursue renewable forms of energy like solar energy.

"We should work together so that development is sustainable, especially along the Mekong (River), upon which millions of people depend for their livelihood and their food and their health," he said. "The Mekong is a treasure that has to be protected for future generations."

Laos is billed as the "battery" of South-east Asia as it earns revenue through the sale of electricity generated by many hydroelectric dams along its rivers. But the strategy has not been without criticism, given the environmental problems that dams can cause.

Fears have been raised over the health of the Mekong, which starts in China and runs almost 5,000km through Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Since 2009, the Obama administration has pushed for increased aid and cooperation in areas such as education, health and environmental protection for these lower Mekong countries, a move seen by some as an attempt to counter China's influence and presence in the region.

But Associate Professor Simon Tay, chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, downplayed the effect of US overtures in Laos.

In the long run, Laos' connectivity to Asean - through its economy or other aspects - would be a bigger factor balancing the Chinese influence in Laos, he said.

Tan Hui Yee

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 07, 2016, with the headline 'Pledge for more aid to Laos to clear unexploded US bombs'. Print Edition | Subscribe