Hillary Clinton landed in the Southeast Asian country of Laos on Wednesday, becoming the first U.S. Secretary of State to do so in 57 years.
Meeting with officials, Clinton discussed the diplomatic relationship between Laos and the United States. The small nation has strengthened its alliance with nearby China of late, though that fact went unmentioned during Clinton's meetings.
A new multimillion-dollar trade and aid initiative with several Southeast Asian countries is expected to be announced by the United States later this week, according to the Associated Press. Clinton's visit established Laos as a probable recipient of increased aid as part of the U.S. administration's pivot towards Asia during the coming years.
The visit was over in a matter of hours; Clinton next flew to Cambodia for a new round of meetings. The brevity of her stop-over shows that small, poor Laos is low on the list of American priorities moving forward.
But the story of U.S. involvement in Laos is much more complex than it seems -- the country once played a vital role in one of the most regrettable U.S. military interventions of the 20th century.
A Country Forgotten
In an essay written last year for Foreign Policy, Clinton spent almost 5,600 words describing the U.S. administration's new policy toward Asia. She laid a blueprint for U.S. diplomacy on the continent and detailed her intentions in terms of establishing trade partnerships and protecting U.S. national security.
Laos is mentioned only once, for its status as aid recipient in the context of the Lower Mekong Initiative. This 2009 plan involved commitments to Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam to facilitate improvements in education, water management and health care.
It is true that Laos is in dire need of international assistance. The landlocked country, which relies mostly on agriculture for revenue, suffers high poverty rates and a woefully underdeveloped infrastructure. In 2010, according to the U.S. Department of State, a full 90 percent of the government's budget came from foreign assistance.
The economy suffered for years under a strict Communist government and command economy system, but has seen piecemeal liberalization since 1986. Today's market-based economy remains subject to strong central planning, which is in turn hampered by endemic corruption. Still, growth is apparent and the country's entry into the World Trade Organization is pending.
U.S. aid to Laos is tricky since the local government, based in the capital city of Vientiane, runs according to a restrictive one-party system and has long been accused of human rights violations. People of the Hmong ethnicity, who make up about 8 percent of the population, are frequent targets of discrimination, imprisonment and harassment.
But despite the literal and figurative distance between Laos and the United States, the two countries are linked by a shared history, going back several decades to the bloody wars in Indochina preceding the collapse of the Soviet Union.
And the Hmong people are at the center of that history.
When then-U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles visited Laos in 1955, the country was in the primary stages of a bloody civil war that would last until 1975. A Communist group called the Pathet Lao, which was allied to the North Vietnamese forces and the Viet Cong, struggled during those long decades -- and eventually succeeded -- to overthrow the royalist government, which was supported by Thailand, South Vietnam and the West.
Unbeknownst to many, the U.S. played an important role in that conflict while the Vietnam War was raging just across the border.
U.S. troops had been stationed in Vietnam for years before formally inaugurating a combat mission there in 1964 with the signing of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, the official beginning of the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Formal withdrawal did not occur until 1973; by then, more than 58,000 U.S. troops and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese fighters and civilians had lost their lives.
Neighboring Laos was important to the U.S. presence in Vietnam. It was not only that the United States wanted to keep Laos itself from falling under Soviet influence; the country was also integral to the war efforts going on across the border, since North Vietnam was using an overland supply route -- the Ho Chi Minh Trail -- through Laos to support their offensive against the South.
Though the United States did not participate militarily in the Laotian Civil War, the CIA engaged in a training mission to help anti-Communist forces defeat both Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese fighters. U.S. funds and munitions went to the Hmong people under the leadership of Vang Pao, the highest-ranking Hmong citizen in the royalist Lao government.
With clandestine U.S. assistance, Hmong troops numbering in the tens of thousands fought in the dense jungles of Laos to keep the Communist bloc from taking over their country, and to block North Vietnamese supplies along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
For their assistance to U.S. troops, the Hmong fighters went unrecognized by the American public; this was a covert CIA operation, and the U.S.-backed Hmong resistance is known today as the Secret War.
The operation was a failure. When the United States withdrew from Vietnam with the Paris Peace Accords of 1973, the anti-Communist fighters in Laos were abandoned with little fanfare.
The year 1975 spelled a resounding defeat for Western powers in Indochina. That year, Saigon fell to Communist forces of North Vietnam. In nearby Cambodia, Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge.
And in Laos, the communist Pathet Lao forces overthrew the royalist government in Vientiane once and for all.
As the Communist forces took over in Laos, Hmong fighters were targeted by the government for their stalwart resistance during the war years. Thousands were slaughtered outright. Hundreds of thousands more were displaced, with many seeking asylum in neighboring Thailand and the United States.
To this day, the Hmong people are subject to grave human rights abuses at the hands of the Communist government.
Hmong marginalization was not the only lasting legacy of the U.S. involvement in Laos during the Vietnam War; there are also millions and millions of cluster bombs interred in Laotian soil, and many have yet to explode.
In efforts to disrupt the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the U.S. dropped more than 2 million tons of bombs into Laos during the Vietnam War. This includes about 270 million cluster bombs, according to the Associated Press -- approximately one-third of which failed to detonate.
Many of those weapons have exploded -- and continue to explode -- during peacetime. The Laos government holds that more than 20,000 people have so far been killed by late-exploding U.S. bombs, and many others have suffered severe injuries including burns and amputated limbs.
Laos relies on international aid to help clear contaminated land, and the U.S. State Department has dedicated $47 million to that cause since 1997. But progress is slow, and most unexploded bombs still remain, hidden and hazardous, where they were dropped by U.S. forces decades ago.
Clinton's visit to Laos is part of an effort to refocus on U.S. commitments to the country, and this was made clear during her meeting with a smiling young man at a medical facility in Vientiane.
The Cooperative Orthotic Prosthetic Enterprise Center (COPE) is funded by American dollars. There, victims of exploded U.S. munitions can go to be fitted with free prosthetics, to replace lost limbs.
Laotian citizen Phongsavath Souliyalat turned 16 a few years ago, on the same day he tripped a bomb and lost both his hands, as well as his eyesight. He chatted with Clinton for about 10 minutes on Wednesday, holding a white cane between his elbows.
I would like to see all governments ban cluster bombs and [try] to clear the bombs together and to help the survivors, Souliyalat said, according to Reuters. I am lucky because I got help ... but so many survivors are without help. Their life is very, very hard.
We have to do more, agreed Clinton. That's one of the reasons I wanted to come here today, so that we can tell more people about the work that we should be doing together.