I have been British Ambassador to Laos since August 2019. The UK does a lot of great work here, including in healthcare, education and sports. But one area stands out above all others – clearing unexploded ordnance.
Many people are familiar with the tale of Laos, but let me just state it again. Laos is the most heavily bombed country per capita in history. From 1965 to 1974, there was a bombing raid – that is, a plane full of bombs – every eight minutes. Every eight minutes for nine years. Between 10 per cent and 30 per cent of these bombs did not explode on landing, which means that millions of bombs were left littering the landscape.
The heaviest bombing was in eastern Laos, where the North Vietnamese were ferrying supplies into South Vietnam along the Ho Chi Minh trail. I have seen maps of Laos, with a red dot showing each bombing raid. On these maps the eastern strip of the country, particularly in the provinces of Xieng Khouang, Bolihamxai, Khammouane and Savannakhet, is just a strip of red. The bombing here was intense.
I recently visited Thame village in Savannakhet, where another British NGO, The HALO Trust, is working. It is estimated that 900,000 bombs were dropped on the village area — and there were only about 17 families there at the time. Which works out at about 10,000 bombs per person.
Further north in Khammouane I saw MAG teams at work in Nongboua village, which received over a million cluster bombs during the war. There are believed to be about 200,000 bombs still remaining in that village — with a current population of about 419, that means there are still 500 cluster bombs per person waiting to be cleared.
In Laos, the main challenge is unexploded cluster bombs — ‘bombies’ as they are known locally — as opposed to landmines. These cluster bombs are generally the size of a tennis ball, and have been scattered all across the affected areas. Over time local residents have come to live alongside them — but this has caused severe problems. Children have mistaken them for toys. Cooking fires have been set up over buried bombs. Farmers have hit bombs with their hoes when working in the fields. And some people have tried to dismantle the bombs, so they can sell the scrap metal. Over the years this has led to a series of awful accidents – with people killed or maimed. And large areas of land have been unsafe to use — including schools, fields and drinking wells.
The facts are awful; staggering; sobering. It would be easy to conclude nothing could be done in the face of such devastation. But thankfully, there is a very positive story to tell.
In my time here I have been lucky enough to see the clearance of unexploded ordnance in four locations. With UXO Lao in Luang Prabang; with The HALO Trust in Savannakhet; and with MAG in Xieng Khouang and Khammouane. When I first made these visits, I thought the work was a fairly technical, military style operation. Finding bombs, making them safe, and moving on. But I have seen that it is much more than that. The whole process involves close liaison between the bomb clearance organisations and the local population. It includes asking people where they have seen bombs — also known as Non-Technical Survey. It involves painstaking examination of the land to find bombs and other scrap metal — sometimes with electronic metal detectors, but very often with trowels, brushes and a patient attitude — it is more like archaeology than bomb clearance. It also involves education sessions with the local population, to warn them of the dangers of unexploded ordnance, which are often held in schools or temples.
And the results are wonderful. First and foremost, deaths and injuries have been greatly reduced in Laos in recent years. In 2008, 100 people were killed and 204 injured. In 2020, six people were killed and 21 injured. That is still too many – but it is progress. And just as importantly, schools can be used again, so children can be educated. Fields can be used to grow rice, which boosts local incomes. Drinking wells can be used to get water for families. This work totally changes the prospects for the local population to have a sustainable livelihood.
I am really proud that the UK government is supporting this work — we currently provide about £3.5 million a year, supporting MAG in Khammouane and The HALO Trust in Savannakhet. It is amazing how much this assistance is appreciated — every time I mention it to a Government Minister, or put a post on social media, I am struck by the sincere thanks we get. This is an issue that strikes deep into the Lao psyche.
So — this seems a sad tale. But overall, it is one that makes me smile. I smile every time I think of the committed teams of mainly Lao nationals that are out in the field, looking for and destroying bombs with skills, dedication, enthusiasm and pride. I smile when I think of how people thank the UK for supporting this work in Laos. But most of all, I smile when I think of the local people in this developing country, who are finally able to put the horrific legacy of the Vietnam War behind them, and create a better future for them, and their children.