VIENTIANE, Laos -- President Obama has arrived in Laos for a summit of Southeast Asian countries, marking the first visit by an American president here.
During his four-day visit, the president will attend a town hall meeting with Asian youth in Luang Prabang, Laos, participate in numerous cultural photo-ops, and deliver a major address to the people of Laos on the dark so-called Legacy of War.
That issue is most likely to catch the world’s attention during Obama’s visit as he discusses the United States’ efforts to clean up unexploded ordnance that has littered Laos for five decades.
From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. dropped more than two million tons of ordnance on Laos during 580,000 bombing missions, according to Legacies of War, an organization based in Washington, DC that raises awareness of the issue and advocates for the clean-up of the bombs. The group believes up to one-third of the bombs dropped over Laos did not explode, leaving the land-locked country contaminated with vast quantities of unexploded ordnance that has killed or injured 20,000 Lao people since the bombing ended.
“For our part, we have been steadily increasing our commitment to clearing unexploded ordnance in Laos, which has caused significant human suffering and been an impediment to development since the conclusion of the Vietnam War,” Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said prior to the president’s trip. “We've been spending additional resources each year as it relates to clearing unexploded ordnance, and we anticipate the president will make this a focus of his visit.”
The United States has already spent $118 million cleaning up unexploded ordnance in Laos since 1992.
Beyond addressing that dark issue, White House officials say the president will work to promote the 12-country trade deal known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, and spread his message on climate change.
On Tuesday, the president will kick off his visit with a bilateral meeting with Bounnhang Vorachith, the President of Laos, to identify areas of cooperation, such as developing education and health infrastructure, and increasing the U.S.-Lao bilateral trade and investment relationship.
On Wednesday, Obama takes a day trip to Luang Prabang, Laos – where he’ll visit the Wat Xieng Thong Temple and hold a town hall meeting with Asian youths. He was also expected to hold a bilateral meeting with President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, but that encounter is now highly in doubt after the Filipino president called Obama a “son of a b----” on Monday and warned him not to question his policy of extrajudicial killings, estimated at 2,400 people since he took power in June, in his war on drugs.
Obama called Duterte "a colorful guy" and signaled that the meeting could be called off if it's determined that a face-to-face gathering won't be productive.
"When and if we have a meeting this is something that will be brought up," the president guaranteed, telling reporters that he hopes the tensions can be dealt with constructively. Obama emphasized that he would surely address the necessity to approach the drug trafficking war in a "way that is consistent with international norms."
The president added that he instructed his staff to talk to their Filipino counterparts to gauge whether a bilateral meeting would be fruitful in Laos.
Obama’s visit to Vientiane follows a stop in Hangzhou, China, where he attended the G-20 summit of global economic powers. The president is scheduled to depart Laos on Thursday.