Lingering in Laos
An echo of a memory, something familiar, but unplaceable…this is in part what many think of when they hear about Laos.
It is a small strip of a country sandwiched between the mighty kingdom of Thailand and heritage abundant Cambodia. Laos runs along the Mekong river, and is scattered with Buddhist and Hindu temples dating to the 8th century. Many of us in the West remember only a vague something to do with the Vietnam/American war…
Cambodia and Laos are covered with landmines from the Vietnam War, but Laos’ history is particularly oppressive, and it is one of the world’s poorest nations and yet, Southeast Asia’s most prolific land of unexploded bombs and landmines.
Laos is threatened by millions of unexploded small bombs that were dropped by the United States during the secret war in the 1970s to prevent communist and Vietnamese influence in the country. More than half of Laos’s 236,800 sq kms, in 12 of 18 provinces, are littered with unexploded bombs.
The US dropped two million tons and 580,000 bombing missions – the equivalent of a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years in a secret bombing campaign from 1964-1973.
Legacy of Landmine
The bombing was an effort to destroy North Vietnamese supply lines and fend off the North Vietnamese Army. The Ravens, U.S. pilots in Laos, flew 1.5 times the number of air sorties flown in all of Vietnam.
Each cluster bomb scattered several hundred tennis-ball-sized bomblets (in Laos known as bombies) over 5000-sq-meter areas. About 260 million bombies fell over Laos with an estimated 53 million bombies dropped within one kilometer of inhabited villages.
Up to 30% of the bombies didn’t detonate, leaving estimated 86 million unexploded bombies buried in fields, roads, forests, rivers and villages. Laos continues to have the largest unexploded landmines and bombs of any nation.
The “Dark Period” after 1975 with the dethroning of King Vatthana put the country into a highly socialised trade relationship with Vietnam which cut off trade with any other nation. Economic restrictions loosened in the 1980s and Laos was admitted into ASEAN in 1997. In 2005 the US establish trade relations, ending punitive taxes, and opening up tourism into the country. Now there is the beginning of an influx of tourists from Europe, Asia, Australia, and the Americas.
Fearlessness & Protection Mudra
In Sanskrit Abhaya means fearlessness, and Abhaya mudra symbolises protection, peace, and the dispelling of fear. The gesture is ancient, showing the hand empty of weapons, indicating friendship and peace. The gesture implies fearlessness before a potential enemy. In Buddhism, it is a symbol of the fearlessness and spiritual power of the one who makes it.
According to Buddhist tradition, the Buddha made this gesture after enlightenment. When the Buddha was attacked by an angry elephant, he held up his hand in Abhaya mudrā and immediately calmed it.
The mudra is usually made with the right hand raised to shoulder height, arm bent with palm outward, fingers up and left hand down. When the right hand is in the abhaya mudra, the left hand usually makes the varada mudra (gift-giving gesture).
In Laos, this mudrā is shown with both hands making a double Abhaya mudrā that is translated as “No War”. The abhaya mudra on a (standing) walking Buddha is called ‘the Buddha placing his footprint’ and is unique to this region.
In a region that has suffered colonialism, civil war and the largest bombing mission throughout the American-Vietnam war, this is a particularly poignant symbol.
Laos is one of the poorest countries in the world, yet the people are celebrated for their passive and benevolent nature. It has the dubious distinction of being the most heavily bombed country in history, yet no war was ever declared on Laos. According to the United Nations Development Program, at current funding, the cluster bomb removal program in Laos may take up to 100 years to complete.
Don’t use landmines: not now, not ever again
The United States has not signed the International Mine BanTreaty
156 nations have signed the treaty, including Afghanistan, Australia, Indonesia, Japan, all of Europe except Finland, all of sub-Saharan Africa except Somalia, almost half of the Middle East and North Africa (including Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait and Algeria), and the entire Western Hemisphere, except for the United States and Cuba.
International Land Mine Ban Treaty
The International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) is a global network that works for a world free of antipersonnel landmines and cluster munitions. The Campaign was awarded the Nobel Peace Prizein recognition of efforts for the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty. The organisation has been advocating for the treaty to become a reality, demonstrating civil society has the power to change the world.
A member of the Cluster Munition Coalition, the ICBL is engaged in the global effort to ban cluster munitions and address their humanitarian impact.
We can help build a world free of landmines and cluster munitions. The strength of change comes from US at local, national and international levels.
1. Learn about landmines and cluster munitions
2. Join a local campaign or start one
Contact one of the national campaigns to ban landmines. If there is no campaign in your country then consider starting your own! If you are from an international organization, contact us to learn more about affiliation.
3. Sign the People’s Treaty
Help put pressure on governments by signing the People’s Treaty to ensure the Convention on Cluster Munitions enters into force as soon as possible.
4. Send a lobbying letter
Write to one of the countries that have not joined the treaties. Urge them to get on board!
Write to the Minister of Foreign Affairs of treaty members states and urge them to lobby the non-member states to join. Read writing tips and sample letters.
5. Get the word out
Write to a local newspaper, call up a radio station, and send information to your friends. The ICBL Campaign Kit is filled with tips
6. Organise a public event
Raise awareness in your community! Organise a photo or art exhibition, arrange a film screening, start a landmine and cluster munition awareness day/week, set up a letter-writing event, hold a public demonstration, host a benefit conference.
7. Stay informed
Subscribe to ICBL newsletter
If you are as passionate about this issue as we are and willing to dedicate some of your time, volunteer or intern for ICBL
9. Contribute to Landmine Monitor
Consider providing information for the Landmine Monitor Report. Find out about their research network and whether you can contribute by looking at the Landmine Monitor website or writing to lm [at] icbl.org.
10. Make a donation
Support the ICBL online, by mail or by telephone. Every bit counts!
Peace is Possible
Southeast Asian countries know landmines are a threat to their people and to national stability. Thailand will begin to de-mine borders with Laos and Cambodia. The entire Southeast Asian region may not be entirely free of landmines, but Laos and Cambodia play an important role to demonstrate how the commitment of countries and agencies can collaborate for change. Asean, the Asean Region Forum, and the Committee on Security and Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific are working together to combat this issue.
Other Landmine and Cluster Munitions Agencies: