The recent leadership change in Laos and the country’s tenure as chair of ASEAN mean that now is an ideal time for the U.S. to step up engagement. This dynamic situation gives U.S. policymakers room to pursue important goals in sustainable development and hydropower on the Mekong. To do so, the U.S. must overcome significant hurdles. Historically, Washington has seen little need to engage with the small, landlocked, and communist country that reminds the U.S. of struggles during the Vietnam War. In 1997, Congress opposed Laos’ entrance to the WTO over marginalization of the Hmong minority. Above all, the U.S.’s wartime legacy issues have been detrimental.
During the Vietnam War, the U.S. saturated Laos with cluster bombs, leaving dangerous remnants throughout the countryside. Unexploded ordnances (UXOs) continue to injure and kill, hindering Laos’ development. Yet, even with these obstacles, the political climate is ideal. The U.S. government should aim for better engagement with Laos by committing to economic development and accountability in UXO removal.
Laos, as Southeast Asia’s fastest growing country, has shown positive movement in its own economic development, but major improvements are lacking. Timber and copper exports have generated a steady source of revenue. USAID development projects in the agricultural and sustainable livelihood sectors are bringing Laos within reach of middle income status by 2020. Newly designated Prime Minister, Thongloun Sisoulith, has expressed a desire to capitalize on emerging opportunities and open Laos to more intra-ASEAN trade and tourism. Smart investment efforts ensure a brighter future for Laos, yet the country is still very poor and hindered by more complex issues.
Laos lies at the intersection of the Golden Triangle, an illicit drug trading center that undermines good economies. Nutrition is a major problem. 44% of children in Laos are malnourished and 27% are underweight. Moreover, an estimated 70% of Laos’ population is under the age of 30. At best, present day Laos is in a state of transition. Laos requires capacity building initiatives to improve continuing development strategies. However, economic development in Laos is not a quick fix as issues literally under the surface threaten Laos’ human security.
The toll of unexploded ordnance on Laos’s security and development is significant. From 1964 to 1973, according to Lao’s National Regulatory Authority for UXO, over 50,000 Lao citizens were injured by UXO from 1969 to 2008. The most prominent casualties ranged farmers and children doing everyday essential activities, everything from building a fire to playing in a field. Travel through rural areas is noticeably dangerous, as casualties during cross-country travel are frequent. UXOs have dangerously outlived their purpose. At the start of the secret bombings over Laos, soldiers were the predominant UXO victims. Now agricultural workers and children comprise over 80% of quantifiable post-conflict victims up to 2008. Their injuries increasingly lead to amputation or death.
UXOs are an inherent threat to Laos’ human security and economic development. UXO contamination can render lands unusable, much to the detriment of the Lao economy. The care and treatment for UXO victims adversely affects Laos’ public health and labor resources. Simply put, Laos’ continued growth cannot happen with UXOs strewn across the country. Development strategies that fail to address the UXO issue may cause Laos’ future prospects may flounder. UXOs are an impediment to the comprehensive growth strategy that Laos requires. A vulnerable population is less likely to improve its capacity for development. The UXO problem is a chronic barrier plaguing a country looking to take a major step in its development. Continuing UXO contamination weakens Lao citizens’ prospects for a sustainable future.
Yet, the UXO threat may be gone in the future, as ongoing diplomatic engagement is paving the way for enhanced U.S.-Laos engagement. High profile visits have improved amity between the two nations. Laos has hosted more senior members of the U.S. government in a recent five year span than in the last twenty years put together.
President Obama is set to be the first U.S. president to visit Laos in September. In addition to the high profile visits, the U.S. government has pledged enriched development output to Laos in the form of improving nationwide nutrition and education. During his recent visit to Laos, Secretary Kerry announced that the U.S. would provide $6 million for school meals to supplement children’s daily nutrition and even pledged $19.5 million for weapons removal and abatement.
Moving forward, the U.S. should build on the framework set by these visits. Fundamentally, working towards development goals in Laos improves U.S.-Laos bilateral relations, which in turn improve the U.S.’s access to the Mekong and the prospect for sustainable livelihoods on the Mekong. Fostering a renewed relationship with Laos is a core value of the U.S.-Rebalance. If the U.S. is to truly gain access to Asia’s dynamism, it must engage with all members of ASEAN. Bolstering Laos is a smaller but important step toward improving ASEAN’s resiliency.
In any case, cleaning up war legacy issues must be high on the U.S.’s policy goals. Above all, UXO removal is a moral imperative, and the U.S. is uniquely equipped towards removing the UXO. As the responsible party for saturating Laos with cluster bombs, the U.S. is accountable in cleaning its remains. In the waning months of the Obama Administration, the U.S. government has the potential to properly re-engage in Southeast Asia. By taking a vested interest in Laos’ development through and with UXO removal, the U.S. is laying the path back to Southeast Asia. Interestingly enough, the contentious issue that separated these countries for so long can become the key issue that brings the closer together.