By Lorel Thomas, Victoria Regional Meeting
Definitions for the word ‘peace’ include ‘safety in matters of social or economic welfare,’ ‘the absence of mental stress or anxiety’ and ‘the general security of public places’.
If we accept that peace means more than the absence of war, then many people living in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic today do not live in peace.
The Vietnam War, which saw so much destruction of their land, ended in 1975 but a deadly legacy lives on. During the war, an estimated 270 million cluster bombs were dropped on Laos; the equivalent of a planeload of bombs was dropped every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for nine years.
Cluster munitions consist of large canisters which open to release hundreds of small bombs which rain down over a wide area. They are highly inaccurate and many do not detonate as intended. Close to 78 million cluster bombs did not detonate. These bombs still litter the
ground across much of Laos and there are, on average, more than 300 new casualties each year.
Close to 40 per cent of these are children who are attracted by the ball-like shape and/or bright colours of the bombs. Ninety-eight per cent of casualties are civilians. More than half of all confirmed cluster munitions casualties in the world have occurred in Laos. Children are killed or maimed while playing or going to and from school. Farmers trying to eke out a living run the risk of death or injury simply by tilling their land.
Why write about this now? In November, I attended the First Meeting of States Parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions in Vientiane, Laos, as part of the official Australian delegation. More than 1100 people attended; 121 governments sent official delegations. These were joined by 19 international organisations and 300 representatives of groups under the umbrella of the Cluster Munition Coalition. The Convention became international law on 1 August 2010, but only for those countries which have ratified it (currently 57 countries have done so). Australia has not yet ratified but domestic legislation is in progress to allow this to happen.
As a campaigner, I also attended campaign meetings. During the lunch
breaks I was able to benefit from discussions on aspects of the Convention, book launches, and other initiatives. In addition I tried to lobby governments, make contacts with campaigners from around the world, and make plans for continued Australian campaigning.
Quakers and Mennonites were active in Laos during the Vietnam war. In 1975, on the communist takeover, the other Non-Government organisations fled across the river and were expelled. However, Quakers stayed ‘to heal the wounds of war’. They were directed north to the Plain of Jars, where five and a half years of American bombing had displaced 30,000 refugees.
Traditional Lao farming methods used mattocks to break the soil at the end of the dry season. The Quaker/Mennonite ‘shovels project’ pioneered a radical change in farming techniques. Farmers were taught to use shovels, a tool less likely to penetrate the bombs. Using shovels, bombs could be carefully lifted and set aside and accidents were minimized.
I was privileged to go to Xieng Kuang province to see de-mining activities first hand. This is an area where cluster bombs abound. Bomb craters still scar the landscape and children need to be kept indoors when bomb detonations are taking place. At the Plain of Jars, I saw the remains of the Ho Chi Minh trail, the site of so much destruction and anguish. There are 60 sites with these huge, ancient stone jars, the origins of which are unknown. However, only three sites are safe to visit. The others are still too heavily contaminated.
The most shocking thing about the ‘Secret War of Interdiction’, as the bombing of Laos was called, was that bombing was not all targeted and deliberate. US planes left from, and returned to, Thailand. If the bombing run to Vietnam had been unsuccessful, the planes were unable to land in Thailand with bombs still on board. They had to be jettisoned somewhere. That somewhere was Laos. Bombs rained down on farmers who had never heard of America.
The Plain of Jars was held to be ‘unpopulated.’ Of course this was not the view of the 30,000 refugees made homeless by this casual destruction.
Two extracts from US anti-war activist Fred Branfman’s Voices from the Plain of Jars: A Cry for Humanity reveal a tragic contrast.
A 26-year-old nurse, on life before the bombs: ‘Around that village of mine were green and beautiful mountains, and the land and the fields my neighbours had sweated over and labored on since the time of my ancestors. My neighbors were all farmers, honest and hard working. Our happiness was full and overflowing because we were content with our lives, even though we lived in the wilderness.’
A refugee from the Plain of Jars, on life under the bombs: ‘There wasn’t a night when we thought we would live until morning, never a morning we thought we would survive till night. Did our children cry? Oh yes, and we did also. I just stayed in my cave. I didn’t see sunlight for two years. What did I think about? Oh, I used to repeat, ‘Please don’t let the planes come, please don’t let the planes come, please don’t let the planes come’.
While in Vientiane, I spoke with the Mennonites and also with a representative from Religions of Peace. I sincerely hope that I was able to demonstrate Friends’ commitment to the Peace Testimony. I greatly appreciate the support given to me by Victoria Regional Meeting in this matter and the financial support provided from the
Peace and Social Justice Fund.
I have been campaigning for Australia to ratify the Convention for years, and on the surface, Australia seems to be moving in that direction. Yet it is the weakest legislation of all ratifying countries so far. It is legislation which does not abide by the intent of the Convention, which weakens the Convention, and which provides a poor example for those countries yet to begin the ratifying process.
Do we want Australian soldiers to refuel planes for cluster bomb strikes, to identify targets for a cluster bomb strike or to call for a cluster bomb strike? All of these could happen if our troops are working with an allied force not party to the Convention. Do we want foreign-owned cluster bombs to be stockpiled on our soil or moved across it? Do we want Australian private and public funds to be invested in companies that manufacture cluster bombs? These activities
are allowed under the proposed legislation. Loopholes like this go against the very spirit of the Convention and indemnify actions which are unacceptable. Campaigners are working hard for amendments to the bill in the hope that it might truly help to eradicate these dreadful weapons. Time is running out however as the bill will shortly be debated in the Senate.
Details of the legislation and my concerns with it can be seen at https://sites.google.com/site/cmcaustraliapublic/
Friends who feel they would like more information on this issue or who would like to assist in the campaign, please contact me at: email@example.com