VIENTIANE, Laos -- President Obama continued his historic visit to Laos, addressing the painful legacy of a bloody conflict that has continued to torment the Lao people five decades after the Vietnam War.
The president acknowledged that while information about the American intervention in Laos from 1964 to 1973 was withheld from the public in the United States, “for the people of Laos, obviously, this war was no secret.”
Obama, the first American president to ever visit Laos, said people here “have continued to live under the shadow of war,” as 20,000 people have been killed or wounded by unexploded ordnance -- bombs dropped long ago that remain buried and may explode at any moment.
“For the people of Laos, war was also something that was not contained to a battlefield,” Obama said, delivering remarks at a service center for people who have prosthetic limbs. “For the people of Laos, the war did not end when the bombs stopped falling. Eighty million cluster munitions did not explode. They were spread across farmlands, jungles, villages, rivers.”
When Obama took office in 2009, the United States was spending $3 million each year to clean up the unexploded ordnance, known as UXO. Though funding has increased to $15 million in 2016, Obama announced Tuesday he is doubling annual funding to $90 million over the next three years.
“Our hope is that this funding can mark a decisive step forward in the work of rolling back the danger of UXO –- clearing bombs, supporting survivors, and advancing a better future for the people of Laos,” Obama said. “As President of the United States, I believe that we have a profound moral and humanitarian obligation to support this work.”
“Doing this work also builds trust,” he continued. “History does not have to drive us apart. It can sometimes pull us together, and addressing the most painful chapters in our history honestly and openly can create openings.”
Obama said that acknowledging the history of war and how it’s experienced by ordinary people “is a way that we make future wars less likely.”
Earlier, the president met with unexploded ordnance clearance teams and survivors of UXO blasts.
Obama spoke with Thoummy Silamphan, who lost his hand in a blast when he was a child, and later turned that misfortune into his life’s mission by starting an assistance organization that helps victims find medical care.
“I’m very proud of the work you are doing,” Obama told Silamphan. “I’m very inspired by you, and one of the things we want to do is work with the center and organizations like yours not only to make sure victims get services they need but also clean this up so the next generation doesn't have to do this.”