Obama's final Asian tour 'unpivots' US war crimes in the region

When President Obama recently visited Laos as part of his final Asian tour, he acknowledged that in the 1960s-70s 'secret war' the US had dropped more bombs on that small country than the combined total dropped on Germany and Japan during the Second World War. But as Kalinga Seneviratne points out, this first ever official acknowledgement was not even accompanied with an apology, still less an owning up to a war crime.

PRESIDENT Barack Obama's 'pivot to Asia' policy, which realigned the US relationship to Asia, is largely regarded favourably in this region. Yet, his farewell visit to Asia 'unpivoted' a darker side of US involvement in Asia - horrendous war crimes committed by the US in Laos in the 1960s and 1970s for which Washington is yet to be held accountable.

Laos, a tiny landlocked country in Southeast Asia inhabited by 6.9 million people, is one of the most heavily bombed countries in the world per capita following the Vietnam War. The dangerous unexploded ordnance (UXO) left behind is a sad legacy of the war that continues to be a threat to the lives of rural populations and a hindrance to the use of land for agriculture and development.

Between 1964 and 1973 a secret CIA-led operation to cut supplies to the National Liberation Front in South Vietnam resulted in two million tons of ordnance being dropped on Laos - more than the combined total dropped on both Japan and Germany during World War Two. This includes more than 270 million anti-personnel sub-munitions released from cluster bombs.

Speaking at the National Cultural Centre in Laos, while announcing a grant of $90 million for landmine clearance operations in the country, President Obama came very close to apologising for his country's war crime.

'For those years in the 1960s and 70s America's intervention in Laos was a secret to the American people who were separated by vast distances and a Pacific Ocean - and there was no Internet and information didn't flow as easily,' he said, adding, 'for the people of Laos obviously this war was no secret.'

The money will be provided over the next three years and will be spent on surveying Laos for some 80 million unexploded cluster bombs dropped during the war. Obama told his audience that the US has an obligation to help Laos clear the munitions that remain in the ground after bombing raids that have devastated large parts of the country.

'Villages and entire valleys were obliterated. Ancient plains were devastated. Countless civilians were killed. That conflict was another reminder that whatever the cause, whatever our intentions, war inflicts a terrible toll, especially on innocent men, women and children,' Obama said, stopping short of offering a formal apology for the US actions.

He added: 'Many of the bombs dropped never exploded. Over the years thousands of Lao people have been killed or injured, farmers tending fields, children playing. The wounds, a missing leg or arm, last a lifetime. That's why I've dramatically increased our funding to remove these unexploded bombs.'

As the Vientiane Times pointed out, about 580,000 secret bombing missions were carried out over Laos. A quarter of all villages in Laos are contaminated with UXO, the impact of which is particularly visible in many of the poorest districts.

Although the Indochina war ended more than three decades ago, the bombs killed and injured about 50,000 people as a result of UXO incidents between 1964 and 2008, with many being women and children.

Explaining the effect of the atrocious actions, Somsack Pongkhao wrote in the Vientiane Times: 'The bombs that remain continue to have a major impact on the safety and livelihoods of rural people, diminishing their ability to cultivate crops and killing and maiming those who take the risk of working contaminated land.

'Unexploded ordnance has a significant effect on social and economic development as a whole, increasing the cost of the construction of schools, hospitals and roads throughout Laos, due to the need to carry out clearance activities before work can begin.'

It is ironic that while the US administration goes around the world, often drafting the UN Human Rights Council and the International Court of Justice, to demand that countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East account for war crimes, it took it almost 60 years to acknowledge its heinous actions in Laos.

Yet, as former American war correspondent in Laos and Vietnam Robert Scheer argued in an interview with The Real News Network, Obama used his visit for a charm offensive rather than accounting for one of the most horrendous war crimes in history. 'If you don't take ownership for your own atrocities, you first of all have no authority to condemn atrocities anywhere in the world and you don't learn the lessons of history,' he argues.

'It was one of the most brutal, uncivilised, vicious attacks on a people that we've seen in human history and the president is lying. It's a bald-faced lie to say "Oh people couldn't get the information because we didn't have the Internet",' notes Scheer, who has witnessed, documented and reported the atrocities.

'There were plenty of journalists. They couldn't get mainstream media to cover the story in any effective way. But the most important thing was that the US government was very effective in lying about what it was doing.'

While these war crimes were well documented, Scheer notes that the US never took ownership or responsibility for what it did. It was only in 2012 that Hillary Clinton went there as Secretary of State.

'This was a war against peasants. People who were using oxen to till their fields. Who barely knew what a pencil was, and you went to war with them to destroy them, to demoralise them, and it had nothing to do with them,' says Scheer. 'It had to do with China, it had to do with the Soviet Union, it had to do with some crazy ideas about the Cold War.'

By offering $90 million to clear mines, Obama made it look like an altruistic gesture to the Laotian people, and the uncritical mainstream media assisted the process.

Even New Zealand, which was a US ally during the Vietnam War, chipped in. Prime Minister John Key, who also participated in the East Asia Summit in Vientiane that Obama attended, announced a grant of $7.2 million to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)'s UXO clearing operations.

UNDP is headed by New Zealand's former Prime Minister Helen Clark, who is also one of the candidates to succeed the outgoing Ban Ki-moon as UN Secretary-General.

'New Zealand has a strong legacy of supporting UXO clearance around the world, including for the past 20 years in Laos, and this funding will make a real difference to the safety and economic prospects of the people here. We are proud to stand alongside the people and the government of Laos to continue this important work,' Key said at a ceremony at the UXO Training Centre in Laos.

But, no journalist present there asked him why New Zealand couldn't stand with the Lao people 50 years ago to stop the US atrocities or whether they were part of the bombing campaign.

Former UNDP resident representative in Laos, Minh Pham, writing in Singapore's Straits Times, called on the US to accelerate the detection and clearance of cluster bombs in Laos.

'At the current rate of clearance, it will take a century for Laos to rid itself of the 2.7 million tonnes of cluster bombs that were dropped, 30 per cent of which did not explode and are imbedded in the ground,' he warned.

Addressing Obama, Minh wrote: 'Bombing people "back to the Stone Age" runs contrary to the "soft" or "smart" power you have advanced. Recognising this, along with the principle that the polluter pays, will go a long way to bridge the trust deficit.'

Minh said: 'A smart move will be to introduce drone technology in the detection of the millions of tennis ball-sized bomblets scattered throughout the country; Laos currently uses handheld World War II-era technology.'

He added, 'Clearing the UXO will lift the tax in perpetuity imposed by the presence of the bombs on the social and economic development of the country. And critically, it is not only a smart move, but also a moral obligation.'

Meanwhile, at a side-event to the 6-8 September ASEAN Summit in the Lao capital, Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith and UN Secretary-General Ban inaugurated Laos's own national Sustainable Development Goal on UXO, which says: 'Make lives safe from UXO; Remove the UXO obstacle to national development.' - IDN-InDepthNews/Lotus News Features          

*Third World Resurgence No. 312/313, Aug/Sept 2016, pp 43-44