VIENTIANE, Laos — Acknowledging the dark aftershocks of the Vietnam War, President Barack Obama paid tribute Wednesday to survivors maimed by some 80 million unexploded bombs America dropped on Laos decades ago and pledged U.S. help to finally clean them up.
Touring a rehabilitation center in Vientiane, Obama said the U.S. had a “profound moral and humanitarian obligation” to work to prevent more bloodshed from the remnants of the U.S. bombardment. He touted his administration’s move to double spending on ordinance cleanup to roughly $90 million over three years.
“For the last four decades, Laotians have continued to live under the shadow of war,” Obama said. “The war did not end when the bombs stopped falling.”
Some 20,000 people have been killed or wounded since the the war ended, Obama said after viewing displays of small rusted grenades and photos of a child missing his foot. He insisted those were “not just statistics,” but reminders of the heavy toll inflicted by war — “some of them unintended.”
“I’m inspired by you,” he told one survivor, Thoummy Silamphan, who uses a prosthetic after losing a hand to one of the bombs.
Half a century ago, the United States turned Laos into history’s most heavily bombed country, dropping some 2 million tons of ordnance in a covert, nine-year chapter of the Vietnam War. The first U.S. president to set foot in Laos while in office, Obama lamented that many Americans remain unaware of the “painful legacy” left behind.
The $90 million is a relatively small sum for the U.S. but a significant investment for a small country in one of the poorer corners of the world. Obama sought to put a human face on the issue by meeting Wednesday with survivors of bombs that America dropped.
The president did not come to apologize. Instead, he said he hoped the strengthened partnership on clearing the bombs could mark a “decisive step forward” between the U.S. and this landlocked communist nation.
Thanks to global cleanup efforts, casualties from tennis ball-sized “bombies” that still litter the Laotian countryside have plummeted from hundreds to dozens per year. But aid groups say far more help is needed. Of all the provinces in landlocked Laos, only one has a comprehensive system to care for bomb survivors.
“We’re incredibly proud of the progress the sector has made over the last five years in terms of the decline in casualties and new victims,” said Channapha Khamvongsa of the nonprofit Legacies of War. “But we are concerned about the upwards of 15,000 survivors around the country that are still in need of support.”
After touring the rehab center, Obama was taking a short flight to Luang Prabang, a city in mountainous northern Laos that is on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. He was to tour a Buddhist temple before taking questions from young Southeast Asians at a town hall-style event.
The $90 million Obama announced follows $100 million the U.S. has committed in the past 20 years. The Lao government, meanwhile, said it will boost efforts to recover remains and account for Americans missing since the war.
The punishing air campaign on Laos was an effort to cut off communist forces in neighboring Vietnam. American warplanes dropped more explosives on this Southeast Asian nation than on Germany and Japan combined in World War II, a stunning statistic that Obama noted during his first day in Vientiane.
Obama was one of several world leaders visiting Laos to attend a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Taking its turn as chair of the regional forum, Laos’ communist government is seizing a rare moment in the spotlight.
For Obama, the visit serves as a capstone to his yearslong effort to bolster relations with Southeast Asian countries long overlooked by the United States. The outreach is a core element of his attempt to shift U.S. diplomatic and military resources away from the Middle East and into Asia in order to counter China in the region and ensure a U.S. foothold in growing markets. The project has yielded uneven results.
Yet Obama’s outreach took an uncomfortable turn just as he headed to Laos from another summit in China. The White House called off a scheduled meeting Tuesday with President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippine – a U.S. treaty ally – after the brash new leader referred to Obama as a “son of a bitch.”
Duterte, who had been expecting Obama to criticize his deadly, extrajudicial crackdown on drug dealers, later said he regretted the personal attack on the president.
Obama filled the hole in his schedule by meeting with South Korean President Park Geun-hye in a display of unity a day after North Korea fired three ballistic missiles. Obama vowed to work with the United Nations to tighten sanctions against Pyongyang, but said the door wasn’t closed to a more functional relationship.
Daniel Malloy in Luang Prabang, Laos, contributed to this report.