While Barack Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to ever visit Laos, half a century after the U.S.'s "secret war" left it with the unfortunate distinction of being the most heavily bombed country in history, he stopped short of offering an apology to one of Southeast Asia's smallest countries.
The Legacy of the Vietnam War
Laos became the world's most-bombed country per capita from 1964 to 1973 as Washington launched a secret CIA-led war to cut supplies they believed were flowing to communist fighters during the war on Vietnam.
Much of the country is still littered with ordnance, including millions of cluster munition "bomblets" that maim and kill innocent people to this day.
In his speech Tuesday in the capital of Vientiane, Obama acknowledged the secret war but stopped short, as he did in Vietnam, of offering an apology for Washington’s dirty legacy.
He pledged US$90 million, a figure close to the US$100 million the United States has spent in the past 20 years on clearing its UXO in Laos, to help the country clear unexploded ordnance that has killed or injured more than 20,000 people.
"Given our history here I believe the United States has a moral obligation to help Laos heal," Obama told a crowd of delegates, including Communist Party leaders, students and monks, during a speech in the capital Vientiane.
"The remnants of war continue to shatter lives here in Laos," he said, adding many U.S. citizens were still unaware of their country's secret carpet bombing of the country. "Over the years thousands of Laotians have been killed or injured. Farmers tending their fields, children playing. The wounds, a missing leg or arm, last a lifetime."
UXO remains a stubborn problem in the region and experts say it could take decades to clear landmines and bombs in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, which were beset by conflicts in the 1960s and 1970s, and in Cambodia's case, in the 1980s and 1990s too.
In the central Lao province of Xieng Khouang, the area most heavily bombed by U.S. aircraft during the war in neighboring Vietnam, there is a trail of devastation.
About 80 percent of the people of landlocked Laos rely on agriculture, but some of it is simply too dangerous to farm. Approximately a quarter of its villages are contaminated with unexploded ordnance, says the Britain-based Mines Advisory Group, which helps find and destroy the bombs.
The issue has long dogged relations between the United States and Laos, a cloistered and impoverished communist nation. But both sides have moved closer in recent years and Obama's visit is being hailed as a landmark opportunity to reset ties.