Images and video footage of Hillary Clinton greeting Phongsavath Souliylath in a rehabilitation centre in Laos this week have been splashed across papers, shared, liked, and commented upon by Lao people, aid workers, and international campaigners.


Phongsavath lost both hands and his eyesight when his friend passed him a “funny-looking object” that he found by the roadside as the boys walked to school. The unexploded bomb, a remnant of the Vietnam War, exploded in Phongsavath’s hands. It was his 16th birthday.

Reports of Phongsavath’s meeting with the US Secretary of State are being heralded as a monumental step forward for the tiny land-locked country and its people, and have elicited quite emotional reactions from people who have lived and worked in Laos.

The footage of 22-year-old Phongsavath excitedly telling Hillary Clinton in a well-practiced speech that he wished “you and all the people, and the American government… to have a good health and that all your good dreams come true” brought a tear to my eye. Each of the 15 times I’ve watched it.

This is partly because I, like others, recognise that Clinton’s visit to Laos and her meeting with Phongsavath is a step forward for this tiny country and its people.

But mostly because I worked with Phongsavath a great deal during my time in Laos, and I can say with certainty that he really does wish the American government good health and good dreams.

Despite the fact that it was their bombing campaign during the Indochina War that left his country riddled with unexploded ordnance, which continues to kill and maim civilians, particularly children.

Despite the fact that he lost his hands and eyesight in an accident with an American bomb. And despite the fact that the US government has done very little to clean up the mess they left behind or to provide assistance for the victims their bombing campaign still claims… 40 years later.

The facts are these:

Per capita, Laos is the most bombed country in the history of the world.  To sever critical supply lines during the Vietnam War, the USA waged a secret war on Vietnam’s tiny neighbour.

The CIA dropped more bombs on Laos than were dropped in the whole Second World War. Many of these bombs were cluster munitions: bombs that open mid-descent, dispersing hundreds of sub-munitions over a vast area. These are known by the Lao people as “bombies”.

More than 280 million bombies were dropped on Laos between 1964 and 1973, and 30 per cent failed to detonate on impact. They remain in the mountainous Lao landscape, in its villages and farmlands.

They are deadly reminders of a war long over.

Each year, 350 people in Laos have accidents with cluster munitions. They are parents who farm their lands to feed their families, knowing they risk hitting a cluster bomb with their picks or shovels. They are children, like Phongsavath, who find something that looks like a toy and try to open it.

This is an atrocious problem for a tiny, developing country like Laos. Recognising this, the international community came together to address the problem.

The Convention on Cluster Munitions came into force in August 2010. It bans the use, production, and stockpiling of cluster munitions, and stipulates that victims must be assisted.

And remarkably, Laos isn’t a country that bears a grudge. As dear Phongsavath’s excited message to the US Secretary of State clearly illustrates, this little nation and its people are actively forgetting the past, and instead, look hopefully towards a future that the Convention promises will be brighter.

Not just for Laos, but for the world. More than anything, cluster munitions survivors in Laos are keen to ensure that what has happened to them can’t happen to anybody else.

But here’s the kicker. The USA hasn’t signed the Convention. Nor have they spent more than a pittance to clear Laos of the bombs they dropped 40 years ago, or to support the people living with disabilities sustained in cluster munitions accidents.

The lack of support demonstrated by the USA for an international law that could, really, change the world for people like Phongsavath has inspired the USA’s friends – including Australia – to implement national laws that fly in the face of the spirit of the Convention.

Australia is on the brink of passing national legislation that will allow us full cooperation with our military allies – like the USA - who have not joined the Convention. Australian defence forces will be free to assist in the use of cluster bombs in every way. The only thing that the legislation will prevent them from doing is actually pushing the button.

This is inconsistent with an international law that exists to “unequivocally, and for all time, end the suffering caused by cluster munitions”.

Clinton’s visit to Laos has once again inspired hope in the Lao people that the USA will finally fix things, that its friends will follow, and that the suffering will come to an end.

It’s the suffering that must be called to attention in this historic moment.  Because despite Phongsavath’s happy and excited exchange with Hillary Clinton, I can tell you - he is not always happy.

Something he once told me has haunted me since.

“When the bombs came,” he said, “They didn’t just break our bodies. They also broke our hearts.”

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18 comments

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    • renold says:

      03:41pm | 13/07/12

      US will never admit wrongdoings and will never fix anything. Justice for Agent Orange victims will never happen either

    • Luthien Nienna says:

      03:53pm | 13/07/12

      “More than 280 million bombies were dropped on Laos between 1964 and 1973, and 30 per cent failed to detonate on impact”- I had no idea. Thank you for this article, and this insight into this small nation.

    • Dr B S Goh, Australian in Asia says:

      08:23pm | 13/07/12

      The USA in spite of all the bad and nasty things it has done since WWII is one of the best dominant military powers in history. Sadly its very strong do good ethos seems to have led it to interfere at great costs to other nations.

      Its war in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia was a great miscalculation as it sought to stop China under the extreme communist rule then. It failed badly to understand the historical conflicts between China and Vietnam.

      If one reads the recent book on China by Kissinger one would find many amazing stories of realpoltik.

      The one that amazed me is the story that the leader of China Deng Xiao Ping informed and got the support of USA one month before China launched its attack on Vietnam.

      At that time China and USA were supporting the murderous Pol Pot Gang and China’s attack on Vietnam was to force Vietnam to withdraw from Cambodia.

      Another realpolitik story from Kissinger’s book was the report that USA sent a senior official to assure that business was as usual between USA and China when the Media in USA were screaming against China because of China’s crackdown on students in Tian An Men Square. A China General asked if he should shoot down the unmarked plane. Luckily he did not do so.

      In spite of all these I am in favour of Australia asking the USA to set up a major military base on Christmas Islands like what they have in Okinawa. We should evacuate all our civilians from Christmas Islands and make it into a no entry zone for Australian civilians and of course all foreign boatpeople.

      Such a base will help the defence of Australia when Asia descends into total chaos with the looming food crisis see Clark’s videos at: http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/video/2011-06/15/content_12702559.htm

    • Rose says:

      10:01pm | 13/07/12

      You are very misguided. The USA may be our ally, and may have done good at certain times, but the USA has also been the cause of unspeakable evil at other times. Just because they are our ally does not mean we should overlook the atrocities that have been committed to further American interests, in fact, as their friend we should be calling them on and demanding that they do better. There is no acceptable reason for them not to go to Laos and clean up their mess, the only reason they don’t is the expense and that there is no one demanding it.
      The USA may not be the worst military power in the world, but they still should be held accountable for what they have done badly, and what they continue to do badly. Military powers are not powers because of their kind natures, they are powers because they have built themselves up in order to exert power on less powerful nations. As their friends, it is our responsibility to tell them when we feel they are overstepping the mark, and cluster bombs are way, way over the mark, as is leaving a poor country to deal with and walking away without undoing the damage that they have done.
      Might is NOT always right and it’s NOT always fair (in love) and in war.

    • Marks says:

      04:02pm | 13/07/12

      Every year tons of unexploded ordnance are dug up by farmers in France & Belgium every year, somewhere under Flanders fields are massive underground mines of hundreds of tons of explosive. Many people are killed or maimed by mines & unexploded ordnance in Northern Africa every year.

      Weapons are designed to kill & maim, in fact maiming is better from the pure cost benefit viewpoint then killing. It still removes a combatant but costs your enemy more. All weapons break hearts as well as bodies, every killed or maimed person regardless of if they are civilian, a combatant or a child is a human being.

      Weapons bans only work for all if the weapon they ban on a cost benefit viewpoint is no good. This is why the ban on dum dum bullets works, fully jacketed bullets are more likely to maim not kill then dum dum bullets while still taking the combatant out of action.

      This is also the case with biological, chemical weapons & nuclear weapons; in most cases when both sides are capable of using them they provide no benefit. The same cannot be said if only one side has the ability to use them.

      International law like all law does not exist unless it can be enforced. No nation is obliged to follow any so called international law they do not wish to unless forced to do so by greater force.  And even the convention does not say that those who have signed must obey it as Ms Miller regards suitable. In fact Ms Millers opinion is not mentioned anywhere at all as being binding on anybody. If she wishes to change Australian Law to fit her ideal of the perfect world, let her stand for election.

      Cluster bombs work. The ban on cluster bombs like the ban on crossbows in medieval periods will only apply to tiny little nations not capable of defending themselves. It is only any good to stop arms sales to tin pot 3rd world dictatorships to use to kill their own people. The USA, China, Russia etc will do as they like & their allies like Australia will comply.

    • Robert Rands says:

      09:42am | 28/07/12

      Cluster bombs work?

      Yep, and the ones that didn’t work correctly on the battlefield keep on working, for generations afterward.

      Many Lao villagers are still faced with the choice between going hungry or growing rice and other crops in UXO-cointaminated land.  I know, because I have been directly involved, on the ground, in clearing Lao village fields of UXO.

      I wonder how long your lofty, philosophical perspective would last if you lived a subsistence lifestyle in the back blocks of eastern Laos? 

      Another question for you.  Why did the NATO air war on Libya, last year, not take advantage of the attributes you attribute to cluster munitions? 

      It seems to me that Libya provided a showcase for cluster bomb use, a chance for NATO strategists to showcase their efficacy.  Libyan loyalist troops were isolated from civilians, were grouped visible, largely unvegetated locations, and were widely perceived as the bad guys.  Furthermore, the discrete areas that were cluster bombed could have been logged and decontaminated afterward, with relative ease, given the nature of the terrain.


      And yet, only the Libyan loyalists used cluster munitions.  They fired allegedly cluster munition artillery shells into civilian areas, and that brought worldwide condemnation.  Despite there being evidence only of usage, and no specific evidence shown of casualties. 


      My guess (because guesses are the self-confessed limit of my authority) is that NATO judged that the political damage associated with cluster munitions far outweighed any strategic advantage.  I also guess that NATO is not really very good at leaving their battle zones cleaner than they found them.

      Another guess of mine is that you know nothing of the Convention on Cluster Munitions, of its very progressive approach to providing support for communities affected by cluster munitions.  The CCM offers a mandate for repair caused by past and future wars, and for holding soveriegn nations responsible for their belligerency and its effects.  And it is an already effective instrument of prevention.  Another of my guesses is that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

      Maybe you don’t really want to live in the back blocks of Eastern Laos.  Maybe you’d be happy with a week or two of war-zone tourism.  In that case, Southern Lebanon may appeal to you more than Eastern Laos. 

      Safe Journey.

    • Kassandra says:

      04:12pm | 13/07/12

      What “national legislation” in Australia is being referred to here? Some relevant details would be useful. I doubt that the ADF would have anything to do with cluster munitions, even if we had bombers to carry them, which I don’t think we do. What makes you think otherwise? Who on earth would the ADF want to bomb?

    • Kim Warren says:

      04:40pm | 13/07/12

      Good article Holly

    • Archie Law says:

      04:57pm | 13/07/12

      Fantastic article! I would like to think that a piece of Clinton’s heart broke when she met a young man with such dignity in spite of the crimes the US committed in his country. Mark cool story bro except there your provide no answers other than massive human rights violations are part of global power struggles so we just should get used to it.  Nothing in here on the success of the Mine Ban Treaty and the massive reduction in the use of anti personnel mines to the point where its only intransigents like the US, Libya, Syria, Russia who use the things.  Just maybe this provides hope that the cluster munitions treaty stigmatises the use of that weapon as well and only intransigents use it.  It aint perfect, nothing ever is, but its a start.

    • Futureproof says:

      06:23pm | 13/07/12

      I wonder if Clinton flew into the country with snipers attacking her, as she had claimed many years ago in Bosnia

    • Pam says:

      06:35pm | 13/07/12

      So if warfare is inevitable we don’t need to read about any lasting repercussions?  Is it co-incidence that ordinance is dug up in the first world Belgium and France, whilst still killling and maiming in third world Nth Africa and Laos?  I think not.
      Shout loud and often and things change. Just we don’t all know what needs to change.
      More articles like this please

    • Janine says:

      06:59pm | 13/07/12

      Thank goodness for the “alternative” media - where the real story can be aired!

    • Barrie says:

      08:01pm | 13/07/12

      Good article Holly, keep it up.
      A lot of the time war is just business in another guise.
      The collateral murder that takes place afterward due to things like mines and cluster munitions is ignored because its not good press and there’s no profit in cleaning it up, after all the perpetrators need all the money they can get to fight the next (profit) war.
      Ghandi was asked one day what he thought of civilisation, he replied, well, its a nice idea.

    • stephen says:

      10:23pm | 13/07/12

      I seem to remember George W. Bush remembering himself the Agent who did all the damage, and there was not an enemy in the house in Old Saigon when reparations were made, financial and otherwise.
      The then President was very sorry for the damage done.

      Vietnam was and is the great error of US Foreign Policy, no doubt about it, but no comparison can be made with current circumstances in The Middle East.

      The latter position, that of our involvement in Middle Eastern affairs, is a reason why Vietnam, Pinochet, the USSR, bootlegging and Wyatt Earp come up when vegetable gardeners want what they think is good for them : an easy life when a computer starts up slow, and I must think of a reason why.

      America is an active nation, and so should we be.

    • PhilD says:

      10:59am | 14/07/12

      War is hell. From a letter written by General Sherman to the leaders of Atlanta:

      “You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out. I know I had no hand in making this war, and I know I will make more sacrifices to-day than any of you to secure peace.”

      “But, my dear sirs, when peace does come, you may call on me for any thing. Then will I share with you the last cracker, and watch with you to shield your homes and families against danger from every quarter.”

      For the full letter:
      http://www.rjgeib.com/thoughts/sherman/sherman-to-burn-atlanta.html

    • mike boddington says:

      12:28pm | 14/07/12

      Great piece Holly Miller:  thank you very much for this.

    • Jesse says:

      12:32pm | 14/07/12

      Until reading this article, I was unaware of either the scale of the bombing in Laos or the continuing problems posed by unexploded cluster munitions in that region. America as the primary perpetrator, and Australia, as its would-be collaborator in future military pursuits, must seriously ask itself “What is appropriate in war?” and “What is our responsibility to its victims in the inevitably messy aftermath?” It is one of the great tragedies of modern warfare that civilian populations are considered legitimate targets of extreme military action. It has become too easy to dismiss the ethical arguments against such behavior, and to ignore its ongoing effect on individuals such as Phongsavath.
      Sadly, it is the third world, unable either to defend itself from military assault or even adequately represent its own interests in the international arena, that so often bears the brunt of these heavy-handed tactics. The practice has become so widespread, dare I say so accepted a part of offensive action, that it no longer draws the appropriate degree of media coverage or public outrage. Congratulations on an article that so clearly and sympathetically addresses what is obviously a very serious problem. Thank you.

    • Janet says:

      07:28pm | 14/07/12

      An inspiring and challenging article that highlights the impact of cluster bombs in the context of the personal and inspiring experiences of a young advocate.  The article clearly captures the impact of an atrocity in our time that is little known and even less understood. The challenge will be to see if the US Secretary of State’s words from this visit become more than window dressing on the world stage.  Phohgsavath is a young man who has courageously taken on the role of advocate against cluster bombing while there are thousands of survivors who live daily with severe disabilities, as a result of this little know war on Laos.  The next challenge will be to see if Clinton can, or even wants to, use her engaging style to convince the US government to sign the Cluster Munitions Convention and to provide resources to clear the bombs in Laos and provide support for the thousands living with disabilities as a direct results of this US.

 

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