In Laos, Clinton grapples with Vietnam War legacy

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US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton greets Phongsavath Souliyalat, who lost his hands and sight from a war era bomb while she tours the Cooperative Orthotic Prosthetic Enterprise Center on July 11 in Vientiane, Laos. Photo: AFP

Hillary Clinton confronted a painful legacy of the Vietnam War on Wednesday when she met a man who lost his eyesight and both hands to a cluster bomb as she made the first visit to Laos by a US secretary of state in nearly six decades.

The United States dropped more bombs on Laos than it did on Germany and Japan combined in World War Two in a futile effort to destroy the Vietnamese liberation forces' supply lines along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

More than three decades after the Vietnam War's end, Laos is still struggling to rid itself of an estimated 80 million cluster munitions and other unexploded ordnance that kill and maim as many as 100 people a year.

"Here in Laos, the past is always with us," Clinton said after touring a center that makes prosthetic devices for victims and whose visitors' center includes hanging sculptures made from dangling cluster bomblets and from worn-out prosthetic limbs.

Clinton's roughly four-hour stop in the landlocked country was the first by a US secretary of state since John Foster Dulles visited Vientiane in 1955. Then, Dulles' plane circled the airport until a buffalo could be coaxed off the tarmac.

Clinton's talks with the Laotian prime and foreign ministers constituted an attempt to improve relations with a country that has kept its distance from the United States but is now looking for better ties.

"When I met with the foreign minister, we traced the arc of our relationship from addressing the tragic legacies of the past to finding new ways to partner for the future," Clinton told US diplomats as she wrapped up her stay.

During her short visit, Clinton laid an offering of lotus flowers in the lap of a statue at a 16th century Buddhist temple.

And at the Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise, which helps victims of unexploded ordnance, Clinton spent about 10 minutes chatting with Phongsavath Souliyalat, a young man who cradled a white cane between the two stumps of his arms as they spoke.

Souliyalat described how four years ago, on his 16th birthday, he was walking home from school with a friend who picked up a cluster bomblet and handed it to him. The bomb exploded, taking both his hands and leaving him blind.

"I would like to see all governments ban cluster bombs and (try) to clear the bombs together and to help the survivors," Souliyalat said. "I am lucky because I got help... but so many survivors are without help. Their life is very very hard."

"You are absolutely right," Clinton replied. "We need to do more."

CLINTON PRESSES LAOS FOR MORE STUDIES ON MEKONG DAM IN VISIT

Hillary Clinton pushed Laos for more studies on a US$3.8 billion hydropower dam on the Mekong River opposed by neighboring countries in the first visit by a US Secretary of State in 57 years.

Laos, a landlocked nation of six million people bordering China, plans to expand its generating capacity and sell electricity to its neighbors.

Laotian Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong assured Clinton that the Xayaburi power project would not proceed without approval from neighboring countries, according to a State Department official who was not authorized to speak on the record. Laos plans to hold an international conference about the project to ease concerns, the official said.

Laos is the smallest economy among members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

The Xayaburi dam's approval may pave the way for seven others that Laos plans to build on the Mekong. The government has aimed to convince its neighbors by showing them studies it commissioned from Compagnie Nationale du Rhône (CNR) and Switzerland- based Poyry Energy AG.

"Both the reports of Poyry and CNR indicated that the project has created a negligible impact in respect of environmental and social considerations," Xaypaseuth Phomsoupha, director-general of Laos's Ministry of Energy and Mines, told reporters in Bangkok on June 20.

While Laos is building access roads and other infrastructure around the dam site, construction on the river itself will not start "in the absence of the sign-off from our neighbors," he said.

Vietnam has recommended a 10-year delay for all hydropower projects over environmental concerns on the river, which winds through Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia from its source in China's Tibetan plateau. About 60 million people along the Mekong depend on the river and its tributaries for food, water and transportation.

Bloomberg, Thanh Nien News

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