Words by Agnes Constante
When Lee Po Cha traveled to Laos in November 2022, he was given the opportunity to detonate a bomb. It was the first time in 48 years he had been back to his birth country. It became the most heavily bombed country per capita between 1964 and 1973. During that time, the United States dropped more than 270 million bombs as part of the American Secret War when it became involved in the Laotian Civil War by supporting the existing government against a communist group. Up to 80 million of the bombs did not detonate.
“It was quite emotional, because as a child, I used to be dragged into an underground bunker when I hid during wartime,” says Cha, executive director of Portland, Oregon-based nonprofit Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization. “And so it just was a reminder of those moments, and it was just so real.”
This year marks the 50th year since the last American bombs were dropped on Laos and Cambodia, as well as the 50th year since the Paris Peace Accords was signed. Throughout the last five decades, at least 20,000 people have died or been injured due to unexploded bombs, also known as unexploded ordnance (UXO). To date, only one percent of land contaminated with UXO has been cleared.
“Farmers know the risk of farming, yet they have no choice but to continue to plow their land in order to feed their families. Many children are at risk just simply walking to school.”
“This means that millions of cluster munitions are still scattered across Laos,” Sera Koulabdara, CEO of nonprofit Legacies of War, writes in an email. The organization is an educational and advocacy nonprofit that’s addressing the impact of the Secret War, which includes the clearing of UXO. “Farmers know the risk of farming, yet they have no choice but to continue to plow their land in order to feed their families. Many children are at risk just simply walking to school.”
Five decades later, advocates continue working to ensure that the American public is made aware of the impact of the Secret War on Laos, and push for resources to ensure that the country is cleared of all UXO. Legacies of War has been central in these efforts. It launched the Forget Me Not Tour to honor individuals affected by UXO and the lives lost along the way.
“We don’t want to forget what happened,” says Aleena Inthaly, chief of staff of Legacies of War. “We don’t want to forget Laos. We want this to be a part of our memory moving forward, to help inspire and encourage us to do the right thing.”
“What I saw, I'll never forget. My father’s white lab coat was soaked with the little girl’s blood. Her painful scream and her mother’s horrific piercing cries shook me.”
Advocates who spoke with JoySauce recalled their own personal experiences and connections to the Secret War. The effects extend to those who survived. Koulabdara, whose family fled to the United States when she was 6, says she saw her father care for victims of UXO accidents. Her most vivid childhood memory of her time in Laos took place when she arrived home from school one day. “I heard a loud thunder-like explosion, then came the pounding at our door and voices of villagers calling for my father. My father rushed out and I followed with my mother,” she says. “What I saw, I'll never forget. My father’s white lab coat was soaked with the little girl’s blood. Her painful scream and her mother’s horrific piercing cries shook me.”
Cha says his family fled Laos by foot. He estimates that it took them about 20 days to walk through jungles to the border of Thailand. It was a traumatic experience: If they were caught fleeing, they could’ve been shot by the new regime in Laos, he says. His family lost some relatives on the journey.
Inthaly adds that it’s important to emphasize that the 50th year is not an anniversary or a celebration, but rather a year of remembrance.
The Forget Me Not Tour began in February and is scheduled to run throughout the next several months. What takes place at tour stops varies and is tailored toward specific communities.
One of its stops was in Portland at the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization. About 100 people attended, Cha says. Attendees had the opportunity to learn about the effects of UXO through a presentation by Erin Lin, professor of political science and global food politics at Ohio State University whose research focuses on aerial bombings, UXO and rural poverty. Lin talked about the impact of bombings on the development of villages in Cambodia.
On April 4, International Mine Awareness Day, Legacies of War board member Jessica Pearce Rotundi gave remarks during UN Mine Action Symposium. Among the topics she touched on included her family’s involvement in the bombing of Laos and how cluster bombs used in Laos are being dropped in Ukraine today.
“We need to take bold action and ban landmines and cluster bombs from our arsenal to prevent future atrocities,” she says, calling on the United States to accede to the Mine Ban Treaty and Convention on Cluster Munitions.
Apart from the tour, Legacies of War has continued efforts to educate the public about the impact of American bombings in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam through Legacies Library, a podcast to document the community’s oral history and an online resource for youth that provides short lessons about culture, UXO, and Lao history. Members of the organization also speak about the conflict at universities.
Supporters of Legacies of War’s efforts include the Southeast Asian Freedom Network (SEAFN), a coalition that’s spearheading the Southeast Asian Relief & Responsibility campaign (also known as SEARR) to hold the United States accountable for the impact of its involvement in conflicts in Southeast Asia—which led to the mass resettlement of refugees in the United States—on community members. The campaign includes three bills that would address UXO in Laos, address the impact of the use of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, and reform immigration in part by providing individuals who have been deported with a way to return to the states.
“Conditions were created that really displaced folks from their homelands. And once rebuilding in the U.S., other systems and policies came into play that really funnel people from the prison-to-deportation pipeline.”
Kevin Lam, national co-coordinator for the SEARR campaign, says SEAFN wants to be able to tell a broader narrative of the Southeast Asian community’s experience and hold the United States accountable for the harm and violence inflicted on the community due to U.S. military intervention.
“The ways in which all of these different legislative priorities are important is because it tells a larger story about the reason why Southeast Asian deportations are happening now,” he says. “Conditions were created that really displaced folks from their homelands. And once rebuilding in the U.S., other systems and policies came into play that really funnel people from the prison-to-deportation pipeline.”
The civil rights nonprofit Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC), is also working to educate the public about the Secret War by informing members of Congress and their staff about the impact of the conflict on Hmong, Lao, and other communities in this country. The organization also conducts workshops and trainings about the war at primarily Hmong student conferences.
“For us, it’s all about tying together the U.S.’s role in Southeast Asia and its many impacts in those countries, and tying that to why these populations are now in the U.S. and why the U.S. has to continue to be held responsible and take care of those populations,” says Kham Moua, SEARAC’s director of national policy.
“It’s all about tying together the U.S.’s role in Southeast Asia and its many impacts in those countries, and tying that to why these populations are now in the U.S. and why the U.S. has to continue to be held responsible and take care of those populations.”
Cha says it’s important for people to learn about the Secret War because it’s an example of how war is never a solution: even for the side that wins, there is much loss and suffering, he says. During his trip to Laos in November, he learned that the country remains economically stunted because investors are reluctant to launch developments in a place filled with mines.
“Even the regime that is in control right now, guess what? They still face a toxic environment; they still face social, emotional, and economic challenges. Our children and generations to follow still continue to suffer,” he says. “So if there’s any possible way to avoid war, that would be the best way to seek resolution.”
Published on May 25, 2023
Words by Agnes Constante
Agnes Constante is a freelance journalist whose byline has appeared in NBCNews.com, Los Angeles Times, Women's Health, KCET, Inquirer.net, Prism, TimesOC and Asian Journal. Her work has been recognized by the Los Angeles Press Club and Philippine American Press Club. Agnes is currently a Carter Fellow and board member for the Los Angeles chapter of the Asian American Journalists Association.