06/24/2013 11:55 EDT | Updated 08/24/2013 05:12 EDT

Laos asks Canada to restart funding to help clear deadly cluster bombs

VIENTIANE, Laos - The scale of contamination by cluster bombs here is staggering. So Laos has a simple plea for Canada: please send us more money.

The lush landscape of this thickly forested country, an often forgotten battleground of the Vietnam War, is littered with unexploded ordinance, known as UXO. It is the lethal legacy of a relentless U.S. bombing campaign — on average, the rolling thunder of B-52s pounded this country every eight minutes, 24 hours a day for nine years between 1964 and 1973.

Their payloads included cluster bombs. Of the 270 million fist-sized bomblets dropped, 80 million failed to explode. These so-called "bombies" still lie in wait decades later. They continue to be a hazard to civilians just living their lives — a child attracted by their fading colours or a farmer scrounging for scrap metal.

Canada cut its funding to the international effort to help clear these deadly cluster munitions from Laos in 2012, after contributing more than $2 million between 1996 and 2011.

In a series of interviews in Laos, senior government officials urged Canada to return with whatever financial support it can offer to the annual, $30-million, international clearance effort.

The United States is the leading annual contributor to the clean-up effort with about $9 million, followed by Japan, Norway and Australia, among others.

Laos wants to boost the annual spending to $50 million so it can expand the rate of clearance, increase education programs to reduce the number of child victims and improve health services to an estimated 12,000 cluster bomb victims and their families.

"This is the humanitarian need," Bounheuang Douangphachanh, a senior minister and chairman of the Laos government's unexploded ordnance agency, said in an interview with The Canadian Press. "We also ask the international community to help us and encourage the U.S. to contribute even more.

"We also would like to ask Canada to continue its support to the UXO sector in Laos. I would like to express our sincere gratitude and thanks for our previous support."

Asked what he thought Canada's fair share might be, Bounheuang said: "I cannot say exact figures, but as much as possible as the government can afford. I can refer back to the $20 million shortfall for the whole sector."

Forty years after the last bombs of the Vietnam War fell on this tiny South Asian country, large swaths of the picturesque rural landscape remain heavily contaminated by unexploded ordnance.

So far, Laos and its international partners have managed to reduce the yearly toll of civilians either killed or injured to 56 last year from a previous annual average of about 300. Two out of every five victims is a child.

American warplanes targeted their huge, covert bombing campaign against the Ho Chi Minh trail, the supply route of the communist North Vietnamese Army that wound through the Laotian jungle.

The B-52s saturated northern Laos, where the trail entered the country, as well as the southern region where it exited into U.S.-supported South Vietnam.

In a country of two million at the time, the U.S. dropped the same number of tonnes of bombs — a single tonne for every man, woman and child in Laos.

"The bombs were produced in the United States, dropped by American airplanes in a war that was never declared against this country," Minh Pham, the head of the United Nations in Laos, told The Canadian Press in a lengthy interview.

"Forty years later, it's still maiming people."

Minh said it will take ages to clear Laos of cluster munitions, even if the international community invests more to help the clearance efforts.

"It might take a few centuries at this rate, at the level of spending," said Minh, a Vietnamese-born American citizen whose family was evacuated in 1975 from Saigon as the war ended in an American retreat.

The bombies pose a threat in fields, rice paddies and other fertile land that the impoverished rural people here depend upon for survival.

Many have been cleared — often with deadly consequences — by local farmers desperate to grow rice to feed their families. Subsistence farming is still a major economic activity in this country of six million. Many Laotian farmers still don't grow enough to feed themselves.

"We can't understand that a lot of people can be desperate," said David Horrocks, head of MAG, the British ordnance-clearing agency, which has been active here for 20 years. "Poverty is still an issue here."

A voracious scrap-metal market, mainly exporting to neighbouring Vietnam, once drove locals to the dangerous work of clearing unexploded ordnance, but Horrocks said the practice has tailed off in recent years because the price of scrap has dropped.

No one knows for sure how many of the bombies have been cleared from Laos. The UN and government officials estimate as little as one per cent has been removed.

Today, an estimated 12,000 Laotian people — some blind, some without limbs — are among the country's living cluster bomb victims.

Aside from the obvious damage the bombies pose to young, curious children, the UN, aid agencies and the Laotian government all view the cluster munition infestation as the single biggest obstacle to poverty reduction in this poor country that lags far beyond the bustling economies of its Asian neighbours.

"Without international assistance, it will be very difficult for Lao PDR to get the job done in terms of clearance, mine-risk education and victim assistance," said Maythong Thammavongsa, a senior foreign ministry official. PDR refers to the country's formal name, Lao People's Democratic Republic.

"I know that Canada is one of the strong supporters of humanitarian disarmament … for banning weapons that cause unacceptable harm to civilians. I hope that Canada will continue to provide valuable assistance to Lao PDR."

Canada signed the Convention on Cluster Munitions in 2008 and last year introduced legislation in the Senate to ratify it. The bill was tabled late last year in the House of Commons. But with the House rising for the summer recess last week, the ratification is on hold until later this fall.

The fact that Canada has stopped its UXO funding in Laos and has yet to ratify the international convention banning the weapon contrasts sharply with the leadership the country showed in the 1990s when Canada led the world with the Ottawa Convention, which banned the use of anti-personnel land mines.

Canada has no embassy in Laos and covers the country from neighbouring Thailand. Senior officials in Ottawa refused to allow the ambassador to Thailand to speak to The Canadian Press.

In early June, the top bureaucrat in the Foreign Affairs Department, Deputy Minister Morris Rosenberg, visited Laos along with Canadian Ambassador Phil Calvert in what local media billed as the first visit by a high-level delegation since the two countries established diplomatic relations in 1974.

They announced plans for Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird to visit Laos in July.

Phoukhieo Chanthasombone, director of the Laos government agency that deals with the cluster bomb issue, has made repeated funding pitches to Canadian officials, including in Geneva earlier this spring when he led the Laotian delegation at a recent set of cluster bomb convention meetings, and at another round of meetings in Oslo last year.

"I think they understand us, what the problem is here," he said. "That is why I really hope the government of Canada can come back and continue to support the UXO sector in Lao PDR."

Laos is one of the remaining handful of communist countries left in the world.

Phoukhieo said he understands that Canada is reluctant to give aid money directly to some foreign governments, so he has no problem if Canada wants to funnel its contribution through the UN or other international agencies.

"Especially, we want money to do the survey, to define the boundary of the UXO in each development focus area," he said. "We want money to help the victims."

Over at Handicap International, Violaine Fourile, the head of its UXO program, gripped a brown and yellow metal ball — a decommissioned BLU-42 bomblet, one of the most common in Laos — and explained its deadly appeal.

"As you see, this is a very small UXO. It looks like a tennis ball. It makes it attractive to the children because they want to play with it, to open it."

At UXO Lao, the country's national clearance agency, which works with a handful of international agencies to clear cluster bombs, deputy director Wanthong Khamdala offered effusive praise for Canada's past support of the effort in Laos.

Then he thumbed through a chart of dollar figures, coming to the column on Canada. "(In) 2007 to 2009, three years, there's no support," he said. "In 2012, we have no support from Canadian government too."

On the front porch of his office, the brown, empty carcass of a decommissioned cluster bomb, about as tall as Wanthong, tells another story.

This one bomb held 670 bombies, he explained. Based on the average failure rate, that means this single bomb unleashed more than 200 bombies that didn't explode. Almost all of them remain on the ground in Laos — each a potential threat to life and limb.

"One per cent! One per cent!" Wanthong said, holding up his index finger to explain how many have been cleared.

"Maybe there's some other internal issue the Canadian people consider more important to resolve," he said. "But I'd like to request to the Canadian government to consider again to support."

— This story was written with financial support from the R. James Travers Foreign Corresponding Fellowship.