VIENTIANE, Laos — President Obama on Tuesday said the United States would spend $90 million over the next three years on clearing unexploded bombs that it dropped on Laos during the Vietnam War.
Obama made the announcement during remarks delivered at the Lao National Cultural Hall in the capital Vientiane. The pledge doubles the current U.S. funding for the effort. Obama is the first sitting U.S. president to visit the Southeast Asian country.
“The spirit of reconciliation is what brings me here today. Given our history here, the U.S .has a moral obligation to help Laos heal,” Obama said. Obama said he wanted to make the two nations “whole again.”
The president arrived in Laos late Monday after attending the Group of 20 summit in Hangzhou, China, for a series of Asian summit meetings this week that will focus on security, terrorism, natural disasters and other regional issues.
Following a meeting with South Korean President Park Geun-hye, Obama said the U.S. will work with allies to toughen sanctions on North Korea after the reclusive state fired three ballistic missiles Monday. He said there was room for dialogue if North Korea changes direction.
A secret, nine-year U.S. bombing campaign aimed at blocking supplies to Vietnam and fighting communist forces in northern Laos left tens of millions of unexploded bombs in the countryside.
Between 1964 and 1973, the U.S. conducted 580,000 bombing missions over Laos, dropping some 270 million cluster bombs on the officially neutral country.
An estimated 80 million of the baseball-sized cluster bombs — nearly a third of those dropped — failed to detonate. Less than 1% have been cleared and more than 20,000 people have been killed or injured since the bombing ceased.
The U.S. has steadily increased its funding for removing unexploded bombs from around $2.5 million a decade ago to $15 million this year.
“It’s great news for the sector and great news for Laos,” said Kim Warren, head of mission at Handicap International Laos, an aid group that clears unexploded ordnance and helps victims who have been injured by bombs and mines. "It all comes down to securing funding for what we do.”
“It’s more than we were expecting,” added Simon Rea, Laos country director for Mines Advisory Group, an aid group which receives the majority of its funding for mine and bomb clearance operations in Laos from the U.S. “I think that it is a very significant move, and it will move us forward very quickly.”
As the summit opened Tuesday, Obama cancelled a meeting with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte after the latter called him a “son of a bitch” while warning him not to question him about his country's extrajudicial killings in a war on drugs. Duterte later expressed regret over the comments.
Laos is a sleepy, landlocked country of 6.8 million. It may well be the final Asian stop during Obama's presidency.