One of the most important and enjoyable parts of my job as United States Ambassador to the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (PDR) is meeting people as I travel throughout the country. Lao PDR’s young, dynamic population is overwhelmingly located in rural areas spread out across this beautiful, rugged country. You cannot understand Lao PDR without seeing the people in the rural areas and how assistance programs from the United States are impacting their lives. In August, I visited Xieng Khouang Province to observe the unexploded ordnance (UXO) survey and clearance process that humanitarian clearance operators implement. It was my second visit as Ambassador to witness these survey and clearance operations in the field.
Addressing the UXO issue is a top priority for the United States, and I am particularly proud of our long-standing partnership with the Lao government on UXO survey and clearance. Military activities during the Indochina Wars of the 1960s and 1970s left Lao PDR with some of the world’s highest levels of unexploded sub-munitions contamination, most of which is of U.S. origin. Population growth in rural areas and other socioeconomic factors have increased pressure to return UXO-contaminated land to productive use, which leads to greater risk of death and injury.
We started the day at the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) office, which currently employs 588 Lao women and men to conduct survey and clearance operations throughout Xieng Khouang. MAG has been operational here since 1994 and was the first humanitarian clearance operator to start work in Lao PDR.
MAG first assesses its historical data to determine the contamination level—or known presence—of UXO in each village. MAG teams then begin the survey process by traveling from village to village. In community meetings and home visits in the village, MAG talks to families about the UXO contamination they have experienced. MAG teams then explore the area to identify any cluster munitions or other explosive hazards. Finally, these items are marked, reported, and destroyed as soon as possible. During my time with the survey team in Latngon village, Pek district, we located and safely destroyed a cluster sub-munition that had lingered there for some 50 years.
Working with local communities is important to the success of UXO survey and clearance, something I witnessed when in Latngon village. Once MAG has evidence of any UXO items in an area, the teams are likely to find more explosive hazards there. MAG teams prepare maps of these hazardous areas for future clearance operations. Lao staff work with metal detectors to scan each area to identify more evidence of UXO.
I discussed these efforts with a Lao member of the survey team, who told me she has worked for many years with MAG, starting her career as an office cleaner. After training to become a field technician, she gradually rose to her current post as provincial operations manager. Increased U.S. funding for UXO clearance has provided many Lao women and men an opportunity to upgrade their clearance skills and take on more responsibility in the sector. In 2021, funding from the United States will allow MAG to employ more than 800 Lao staff in Xieng Khouang Province alone. The United States is grateful to these dedicated and brave women and men for their work clearing these deadly hazards, and thereby assisting Laos’ safe development.
MAG is not the only group in Laos removing deadly legacies of war. A few months earlier, in June, while traveling in Attapeu Province, I was invited by the national survey and clearance operator, UXO Lao, to see their work firsthand.
UXO area clearance includes the removal and destruction of explosive hazards from one of the surveyed and mapped areas. UXO Lao teams conduct this work according to national standards that have improved the speed and effectiveness of clearance. By removing items in a safe and timely manner, UXO Lao has increased the number of explosive items that can be removed per year.
UXO Lao invited me to dispose of a bomblet they found earlier in the day. It is only this final step that enables the release of safe, cleared land to the Lao people.
I have worked in Lao PDR before, and I am pleased to see that due to clearance and education, the rate of UXO casualties has steadily decreased over the last decade. Increased donor support for survey and clearance has also meant record levels of cleared land being returned to Lao communities. The United States is the largest donor to the UXO sector in Lao PDR, having contributed more than $230 million since 1995. More importantly, it is the productive partnership between the United States and Lao PDR that has made these activities successful.
The United States is proud to support the Government of Lao PDR’s National Sustainable Development Goal #18, which is to remove UXO as a barrier to national development by 2030. We recognize the painstaking and dangerous nature of the survey and clearance work that MAG, UXO Lao, and other organizations undertake. We also appreciate the commitment of the Lao women and men working, village by village, as they survey UXO contamination. The ongoing survey leads to better identified clearance needs and allows us to fund clearance operations in Xieng Khouang and five other provinces with significant UXO contamination.
The United States is the world leader in Conventional Weapons Destruction (CWD), programming more than $3.7 billion in over 100 countries since 1993 to advance security, stability, and economic development priorities. Working together, the United States and Lao PDR can continue to move beyond this tragic legacy of war and pave the way for a peaceful and prosperous future for the Lao people.
For more information on the Department’s CWD programs, check out the Department’s annual report, To Walk the Earth in Safety, and follow the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs on Twitter .
For more information from U.S. Embassy Vientiane, visit their website and follow them on and .
About the Author: Ambassador Peter M. Haymond currently serves as the U.S. Ambassador to the Lao People’s Democratic Republic.