By Jane Perlez –
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made a brief stop on her Asia tour on Wednesday in Laos, the first visit by an American secretary of state here in 57 years and one that brought into stark relief the enduring legacy of the Vietnam War.
At an artificial-limb center, Mrs. Clinton met a 19-year-old who lost his forearms and eyesight when a bomb, dropped by the United States Air Force during the Vietnam War and unexploded for decades, finally blew up three years ago.
The young man, Phongsavath Sonilya, gesticulated with his arm stumps as he explained to Mrs. Clinton that more than three decades after the end of the war, not enough had been done to stop the use of cluster bombs and to support those who may be injured in the future by bombs still lying unexploded in the countryside. The United States has not signed the Convention on Cluster Bombs.
The four-hour visit by Mrs. Clinton to Laos provided other reminders of the Vietnam War.
The government is run by the Communist Party, and five of the nine members of the Politburo, including the Prime Minister, Thongsing Thammavong, who met with Mrs. Clinton, are veterans of the Pathet Lao guerrilla group that supported North Vietnam against the United States. Until 1975, Vientiane, the capital, had a strong American influence. After Saigon fell, more than 1,200 Americans were evacuated from Laos when the Pathet Lao, backed by the Soviet Union, took power.
Now Laos is closely aligned with China, its biggest benefactor by far, with investments of more than $4 billion in mining, hydropower and agriculture. The Chinese built many of the main buildings in this relaxed tropical capital and are now constructing a new convention center with 50 villas for a European-Asian summit meeting in November, a meeting that does not include the United States.
Mrs. Clinton’s visit, in keeping with the understated nature of the people, was quite subtle. When Secretary of State John Foster Dulles came here in 1955, he tried to persuade the Lao royal family to drop its neutrality in the cold war and join the American camp. Mrs. Clinton did not attempt anything as brazen, even avoiding mentioning China, though the import of her visit — to seek warmer relations between the United States and Laos — was quite clear.
There was no news conference with the prime minister but a carefully worded statement negotiated by both sides that noted the coming entry of Laos into the World Trade Organization, and cooperation between the United States and Laos on environmental protection.
After the meeting with the prime minister, the State Department said that Laos had decided to suspend the construction of the Xayaburi dam, a project being built by Thailand to send electricity there. Neighboring countries have complained that the dam would upset the flow of the Mekong River, the main waterway of Southeast Asia.
At the center that provides artificial limbs, known as the Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise, Mrs. Clinton viewed a map embedded with red dots that showed where bombs were dropped along the Ho Chi Minh Trail and on the Plain of Jars. There were more than 580,000 bombing missions by the United States Air Force, making Laos the most heavily bombed country on a per-person basis, the text said.
At the end of the war, more than 30 percent of the bombs remained unexploded, leaving Laos with a deadly problem in rural areas that persists today.
Each bomb contained about 600 bomblets, and in recent years about 100 people have been killed by unexploded ordnance, 40 percent of them children.
Rural people often scavenge for the bombs, believing the metal has value. Young children think they are toys, said Soksai Sengvongkham, the operations manager of the visitors center. As she toured the center, Mrs. Clinton asked several times why more sophisticated technology could not be used to find the bombs, which are currently located by workers with metal detectors.
There was evidence, too, of the low-cost nature of some of the homemade limbs that farmers put together using bamboo, metal tubes from bombs and wood, while they awaited more professional limbs.
After the visit to the center, Mrs. Clinton said it was “a painful reminder of the Vietnam War era.”
“The international community will join us in our efforts to bring this legacy of the Vietnam War to a safe end,” she said.
From Laos, Mrs. Clinton flew to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, for the annual meeting of foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Bree Feng contributed research.
New York Times