US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton yesterday became the first US secretary of state to visit Laos in 57 years, on a trip focused on the damaging legacy of the Vietnam War and a controversial dam project.
At Vientiane’s flag-bedecked Wattay International Airport, Clinton was given flowers by girls in traditional purple-silk costumes, as she began her brief but historic trip.
“It’s a pretty big deal for the Laotians, and we will underscore a number of areas that we’re working on together,” a senior US official said.
These include leftover ordnance from the war that ended in 1975, excavating the remains of US soldiers missing in action and the continuing effects of defoliant Agent Orange, used by the US to try to flush out communist forces.
Clinton, whose four-hour whirlwind trip has been front page news in Laos this week, met with Laotian Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong at his office in an elegant white-columned building with two large elephant statues outside.
The pair had “substantive discussions on the broadening bilateral cooperation,” a joint statement released after the meeting said.
The two “agreed to improve and further facilitate the accounting operations for American personnel still missing from the Indochina War era” and address the “remaining challenges” of unexploded ordnance, the statement said.
They also discussed the forthcoming entry of Laos into the WTO.
Clinton is only the second US secretary of state to visit Laos after John Foster Dulles, who spent a day in the then-monarchy in 1955. Experts say that all those years ago, they had to clear the water buffalo from the Vientiane airport runway so his plane could land.
Clinton was invited by Laotian Foreign Minister Thongloun Sisoulith in 2010, who was the first top Laotian official to visit Washington since the Soviet-backed communist rebels swept to power, ousting the monarchy, in 1975.
US relations with Laos, while never severed, were long tense, in part over its campaign against the Hmong hill people who assisted US forces during the Vietnam War.
However, the US established normal trade ties with Laos in 2004 and annual US aid to Laos will be around US$30 million in total this year, a US embassy official said.
Of that, US$9.2 million will be set aside this year for cleaning up unexploded ordnance (UXO). US forces dropped more than 2 million tonnes of ordnance on Laos between 1964 and 1973 in about 580,000 bombing missions to cut off North Vietnamese supply lines.
As a result, Laos is the most heavily bombed country, per capita, in history. About 30 percent of the ordnance failed to detonate and all 17 of the country’s provinces still suffer from UXO contamination.
Clinton, who also visited a US-funded orthotic and prosthetic center, discussed “ongoing bilateral cooperation to help resolve the challenges associated with UXO” with Thammavong.
Another of the main thrusts of the trip is talks on controversial plans by Laos to build a massive dam on the Mekong River.
During regional talks in Bali last year, Clinton called for a moratorium on dam building along the river. Activists say the dam projects could spell disaster for 60 million people who depend on the Mekong waterway.
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