A team clearing a landmine in Vietnam. [Image: James Hathaway / Clear Path International / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)]

US Senate Introduces Bill to Address War Legacy in Southeast Asia

ASEAN The Mekong Asia

On March 10th , Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin and Kansas Senator Jerry Moran introduced the Legacies of War Recognition and Unexploded Ordnance Removal Act (S3795) to recognize the legacy of Southeast Asian communities and immigrants who supported US forces during Vietnam War-related conflict in Southeast Asia. The bill authorizes funding for the removal of landmines and unexploded ordnances (UXO) and victim support for those still experiencing the effects of the war in Southeast Asia.

The bill acknowledges the United States’ history of heavy bombing in Southeast Asia, and its previous attempts to address this legacy. It also recognizes the bravery of the Southeast Asian community in protecting US Forces and civilians. For example, it mentions that the National Armed Forces of Cambodia fought back the Khmer Rouge to evacuate of the United States Embassy in Cambodia on April 12, 1975. In response, the bill would authorize $100 million for each fiscal year from 2022 to 2026 to provide funding and aid to organizations to demine, provide risk education and medical assistance to survivors of explosive remnants of war, and survey UXO and explosives remnants still needed to be removed in Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia.

Decades after the Vietnam War, UXOs and explosive ordinances are still scattered across Southeast Asia, causing civilian casualties and injuries. Cambodia has one of the highest rates of landmine and UXO fatalities in the world. 65,000 Cambodians have lost their lives since 1979 from landmines or UXOs still trapped underground. In Vietnam, 38,000 people have lost their lives from landmines or UXOs and there are an estimated 800,000 tons of UXOs left over from the war. In Laos, the most heavily bombed country per capita, 50,000 civilians have been injured or died from landmines or UXO since 1964. This bill would authorize funding for organizations such as Cambodia Self Help Demining in bomb clearance operations.

Senator Baldwin and Senator Moran’s leadership on this bill was likely motivated by the Southeast Asian diaspora in their constituency who have been affected by this legacy of war. In Wisconsin, there are 1,197 Cambodians, 58,140 Hmong, 4,857 Laotians, and 6,991 Vietnamese. Wisconsin has the 3rd highest Hmong population in the United States, many of whom fled the war. In Kansas, there are 1,908 Cambodians, 1,928 Hmong, 17,260 Vietnamese, and 6,179 Laotians.

The bill is additionally supported by many organizations aiding the Southeast Asian community in the United States, such as the Lao Advocacy Organization of San Diego (LAOSD), Asian American Alliance, Laos Angeles, and the Southeast Asian Diaspora Project (the SEAD project), as well as organizations working to address the legacy of war such as Legacies of War, the HALO Trust, and the Mines Advisory Group (MAG). Laos Ambassador to the United States His Excellency Khamphan Anlavan also said the bill “...is a major step forward in overcoming the legacies of America’s 20th century military interventions in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. These conflicts ended 50 years ago but unexploded ordnance still mars the land and people of these countries...”. The bipartisan support in Congress and many grassroots organizations highlights the importance of this issue.

As it stands, the bill has been introduced and referred to the Senator Committee on Foreign Relations. In 2020, Senator Tammy Baldwin introduced a similar bill, however it did not pass. For many people in the United States, the violence and war which took place in Southeast Asia in the 1960s and 1970s may seem long ago and far away. However, for many Southeast Asian Americans, those who fought in the war, and those in Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos, the war’s legacy and the United States’ role in in it are still tangible and devastating. This bill has the potential to humbly address and recognize this painful legacy.

Abbigail Hull is a Projects Coordinator at the East-West Center in Washington