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Towards a UXO-Free Laos: Reflecting on 30 Years of MAG’s US-Funded Clearance Program

Updated: Apr 4

From the desk of Ambassador Dan Clune (Ret.)—former U.S. Ambassador to Laos (2013-2016)

Ambassador Clune, International Mine Awareness Day at The UN in NYC 2023. Photo: Bay Koulabdara @bay_zooka

“In the decades following the end of the war, bombies regularly exploded as the result of a farmer working his fields with a hoe, a family building a cooking fire, or a child playing catch with what appeared to be a toy ball. By the time I arrived in Laos, nearly forty years after the end of the war, UXO accidents were still killing or maiming over 40 people every year.” 

- Amb. Clune

My story in Laos began in September 2013, when I began serving as the United States Ambassador there, following appointment by then-President Barack Obama and confirmation by the U.S. Senate. I arrived in Laos with several goals for advancing the relationship between our two countries, perhaps the most important being to mitigate the impacts of past conflicts, including accounting for U.S. personnel missing in action and removing unexploded ordnance (UXO) as quickly as possible.

Photo: Carolyn Kaster

A major coup in this effort was also one of the most high-profile events of my time in Laos—the visit from President Obama. The President was joined by Ben Rhodes, his Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications and Speechwriting, and they both took great interest in the UXO problem during their time in Laos.

During Ben’s first visit to Laos, which came several months before he returned with the President, we took a boat ride to a village on the Mekong River, where fifty or sixty young schoolchildren greeted us joyfully and were entertained by the energetic library staff, who told them stories and led them in games with puppets and colorful placards. We gave the children books, pens, and White House candy brought by Ben. The kids had no idea what the White House was—but they were of course delighted to get the candy.

Ben and I then drove just 300 meters to a UXO clearance site, where the director of UXO Laos, the government clearance agency, briefed us on clearance operations in the country. He then introduced us to a farmer who had found a piece of UXO in his field, that was now ready for disposal. When Ben pressed the button to destroy it, the explosion made an enormous booming sound that echoed in the valley formed by the nearby Mekong. We were all struck by the destructive power of the small rusty sphere we had observed a few minutes earlier.

When we returned to the village, the staff told Ben that the children didn’t even flinch when they heard the explosion because they were so inured to living close to UXO. The event that had made such an impression on myself and Ben barely registers for people that have to live their entire lives under the threat of decades-old legacies of war.

Photo: Legacies of War

Laos is the most bombed country in the world, per capita. During the U.S. bombing campaign from 1964 to 1973, over two million tons of ordnance were dropped on Laos including roughly 270 million cluster bomb sub-munitions. Around 30% of the cluster munitions dropped did not detonate as intended, spreading approximately 81 million UXO across the country. At the end of the war, Laos had a population of just under 3 million people, outnumbered by UXO 27 to 1. Despite the bombing ending over 50 years ago, UXO continues to pose a threat to the Laotian people and hinders its economic development by rendering land unsafe to use. 

President Obama tripled U.S. funding for clearance operations during his visit, building on the crucial role played by Senator Patrick Leahy (ret.) in funding clearance operations, risk education, and victims’ assistance. When I left Laos in 2016, a reported 59 people were killed or maimed by UXO—in the last ten years this number has steadily decreased to an average of 24 casualties each year. Though still far too many, it shows that our efforts have borne fruit.

Photo: Mines Advisory Group

Ben and I both have continued our support for this work long after leaving our roles in the government. Ben has served on the board at Legacies of War, and I have for the past several years served as Chairman of the Board at Mines Advisory Group (MAG) U.S.

The Mines Advisory Group (MAG) is a global humanitarian and advocacy organization that finds, removes and destroys landmines, cluster munitions and unexploded bombs from places affected by conflict. 

MAG began working in Laos in 1994, working across Xieng Khouang and Khammouane provinces with survey, clearance, community liaison, and rapid response teams to clear community land from unexploded bombs and provide risk education programs, particularly for children, so people can live, work and play as safely as a possible. In 2023 alone, MAG was able to directly support over 144,000 people, clear 17 million square meters of land, and safely detonate and dispose of nearly 20,000 landmines and other bombs.

Over MAG’s thirty years in Laos, tremendous headway has been made, however, it is important not to lose sight of the end goal of saving lives and building a safer future for the residents of Laos. 

I continue to carry with me a deep affection for Laos and its people, following the years my wife Judy and I spent there. This is why I will continue my work with MAG, and partnerships with organizations like Legacies of War, so I can keep fighting for every dollar that can help make a UXO-free Laos a reality. 

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