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A Congressman’s Mission to Demine Southeast Asia

The region’s struggle with land mines and unexploded ordnances provides lessons for other countries at war.

Rep. Ami Bera wants Washington to help clear the millions of pieces of unexploded ordnance that still litter Southeast Asia decades after the end of the Vietnam War.
Rep. Ami Bera wants Washington to help clear the millions of pieces of unexploded ordnance that still litter Southeast Asia decades after the end of the Vietnam War.
As Congress worked through the crunch before its long August recess, the California Democrat introduced bipartisan legislation called the Legacies of War Recognition and Unexploded Ordnance
Removal Act. The bill authorizes $100 million per year in humanitarian assistance for five years to Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia for programs that support the clearance of land mines and unexploded ordnance. It attracted 20 cosponsors.

Lawmakers introduced the authorization bill as an ongoing war in Europe has raised awareness about the risks of land mines and other unexploded munitions. The fact that millions of tons of unexploded ordnance continue to plague Southeast Asia sheds light on what other countries at war, particularly Ukraine, will be forced to deal with in the decades after the conflict ends. Ukraine recently received the dubious distinction of becoming the most mined country in the world. It will likely take decades to clear the unexploded ordnance, just as it has in countries like Laos and Cambodia.

“It’s one of the most embarrassing legacies of the Vietnam War. Just the large number of ordnances that were dropped in Southeast Asia during that war is extraordinary in the impact it’s had on civilians,” Bera told National Journal. “We can’t undo the past. But one of the things we can do is address some of the issues that arose from the past so they don’t affect future generations.”

Unexploded ordnance has killed an estimated 38,000 civilians in Vietnam, 50,000 in Laos, and 64,000 in Cambodia since the 1970s. It’s not uncommon for children living in rural areas of Southeast Asia, particularly in the underpopulated regions bordering Thailand, to encounter leftover munitions and believe they are toys. That’s led to innocent children dying or losing limbs. Farmers working in mined fields have also fallen victim.

The process of removal is dangerous and painstaking. A report the State Department published this year also noted that climate change had made clearing unexploded ordnance more difficult, as floods and landslides unearth explosives that had long been deep underground.

Bera, the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Indo-Pacific Subcommittee, led a congressional delegation to Southeast Asia last fall to meet with civilians working to clear mines. He noted that their work is taking decades because of the high volume of ordnance the U.S. dropped on Southeast Asian countries, and because around a third of the bombs, including cluster bombs, never exploded.

The issue of a munition’s “dud rate,” or the rate at which the fuse fails to go off, came up recently when the Biden administration agreed to send controversial cluster munitions to Ukraine. Over 100 countries have banned these munitions because of their risks to civilians. But the administration argued that the cluster munitions were needed to replenish Kyiv’s dwindling weapons stockpiles as Kyiv launched its spring offensive to dislodge the dug-in Russian soldiers from their land.
The decision caused an uproar among the arms-control community, and House members from both parties introduced resolutions to prevent the
administration from sending the deadly weapons. In response, the Defense Department tried to assure Congress that the dud rate for munitions headed to Ukraine is much lower than it was for those dropped on Southeast Asia years ago. That would mean fewer remain buried in the dirt for years, waiting for a civilian to encounter them.

“I’m not thrilled by the use of cluster munitions,” Bera told National Journal. “I understand the rationale to try to end this conflict as soon as possible, but even without cluster munitions, the number of land mines and unexploded ordnances we already know are in Ukraine will take a long time to clean up.

“The hope is we have better technology, better resources, and understand how to do this better so we do it much faster,” he added.

Funding for clearing ordnance could also get caught up in the appropriations process. The House Appropriations Committee approved $271 million for the State Department’s humanitarian demining programs in the 2024 fiscal budget, an increase of more than $7 million from the year before. That included $80 million earmarked explicitly for Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.

But that could be held up when the budget heads to the House floor for a vote. Bera is clear-eyed about the funding debate that is soon to come. “I would hope we have a normal appropriations process. It doesn’t look that way right now,” he said.

Looking ahead, lawmakers could squeeze funding for the legislation into an omnibus bill. But given the dearth of floor time in Congress, it seems unlikely the legislation will make it to the House floor as a stand-alone bill.

Bera says he would like to put together further legislation to honor the legacy of former Sen. Patrick Leahy, a strong advocate for addressing the U.S. legacy of war in Southeast Asia who retired in January. That bill is still in the development stage, but Bera says he hopes it could fund land-mine removal in the region over 10 years and help lawmakers avoid the thorny debates around appropriations.

“I think there’s a firm commitment from the United States,” he said. “And obviously, we’re going to continue to push for as much funding as we can.”