“The U.S. dropped 260 million cluster bombs on Laos during the Vietnam War. An estimated 80 million did not detonate, scattering throughout Lao villages, rice fields, school yards, pasture lands, and forests. The equivalent of a planeload of bombs was dropped every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years – more per capita than any other country in the world. This is called the Secret War. The mission of Legacies of War is to advocate for the clearance of unexploded bombs and provide space for healing the physical and emotional wounds of war.”
fled from Laos with her family at age six
earned Bachelor’s of Science Degree in Public Administration from George Mason University in 2000
earned master’s degree in Public Policy from Georgetown University in 2002
founder and past executive director of Legacies of War
received numerous awards for her work with Legacies of War, while steadily increasing awareness of UXO in Laos and public funding for removal efforts
recognized for her work by President Barack Obama in 2016
Channapha Khamvongsa’s sincerity and commitment to her mission are apparent and have been reinforced, rather than subverted, over the course of a tough life.
Channapha was born in the little-known country of Laos in 1973 when the country’s civil war was ending. Political struggle, lesser armed conflict and full-scale war had been almost endemic in Laos for the thirty years prior to 1975 and had reached a climax with the U.S. bombing campaign which lasted from June 1964 until June 1973. During this period, the U.S. conducted what has become known as “The Secret War in Laos,” kept hidden from Americans and from Congress. Over the course of a decade, the U.S. military dropped in excess of two million tons of explosive devices on the country.
The conflict known in the West as the Vietnam War, and in Southeast Asia as the American War, involved far more than Vietnam. Without Laos and its communist faction, North Vietnam could not have prevailed in reuniting its country; without North Vietnam, the communist Pathet Lao could not have taken over the government of Laos.
There were two objectives to the bombing. The first was to stem the political tide of communism in the north of Laos. The second was to interfere with the Viet Minh’s ability to resupply and reinforce their Viet Cong comrades in South Vietnam. To do this, the North Vietnamese developed a network of trails and roads through the jungle-clad mountains of southern Laos referred to as The Ho Chi Minh Trail. In an attempt to cut off the flow of men and materiel down the trail, the U.S. dropped a continuous stream of explosives. By the end of the nine-year bombardment of Laos, something on the order of one ton of explosives had been dropped per individual member of the Lao population.
Many of these explosives failed to detonate and still litter the countryside of Lao PDR to this day. Even worse were the cluster submunitions. Cluster bombs open out at a predetermined height and spray a large quantity of cluster submunitions (or, in Laos, bombies) over the countryside. At a very minimum, 270,000,000 bombies were dropped on the country and about 30%, or 80,000,000 did not explode at that time. Most are still there today awaiting a hapless farmer, traveler, forager in the jungle, or a curious child, to complete their murderous task. In 20 years of clearance – 1994-2013 – official efforts have cleared half-a-million of these. At this rate, it will take 3,200 years to clear them all.
For the Khamvongsa family, in the period after the conflict, life was very uncertain; the Royalist government in Laos, supported by the U.S., was displaced by the communist Pathet Lao and its political wing, the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party, which was supported by the Soviet Union.
Those who had been to the right (or even in the center) of the system, fearing their safety under communist rule, crossed the Mekong into the comparative safety of Thailand. The Khamvongsa family made this trip in 1979 when Channapha was six years old. After a hugely daunting and extended escape experience, they spent a year living in a border refugee camp. They were accepted for immigration to the U.S.A. and settled in Falls Creek, Virginia.
Growing up in America, Channapha pursued an educational path available to many middle-class American young people and in 2000 earned a bachelor’s degree, followed by a master’s in 2002. She then went to work for the Ford Foundation. In Washington D.C. she met John Cavanagh, who had once worked with the late Fred Branfman, editor of Voices from the Plain of Jars, a collection of stories written by Lao villagers who had suffered during the bombing. John gave Channapha the materials – childish pictures and essays in Lao – that Fred had collected for his book.
Channapha’s parents had not spoken to their children about their suffering in Laos. Now she discovered how the land of her ancestors was still covered in the unexploded detritus of that period of conflict, how they continued to explode to this day, and how the people of the country were still unwitting victims of a war that ended decades previously. The horrifying revelations that she uncovered led her, in 2004, to establish a new not-for-profit, Legacies of War, dedicated to bringing relief to the people of Laos. Through her organization, she pressured the American government to accept its responsibility to clear the bombs and to give assistance to the innocent victims of this horrific legacy.
Channapha’s motto for Legacies of War: ‘This Legacy must end, so a new one can begin.’
In carrying out her mission, Channapha has worked with extreme diplomacy – never pointing a finger in blame – with great persistence and with enormous innovation. She has gathered together powerful people, including past U.S. ambassadors to Lao PDR, to form lobbying groups, drawing attention to the way the U.S. simply walked away from the devastation it had caused. She brought an amputee survivor and a woman de-miner from Laos to the U.S. for a 12 city tour to enlighten Americans about the realities in Laos.
The donated money Legacies of War gathered was for UXO (unexploded ordnance) clearance and victim assistance in Laos. There have been times when Legacies, operating on a shoestring, with only Channapha on the staff, seemed unlikely to survive. But Channapha has kept it going with her incredible dedication and persistence.
The pinnacle of her achievement came in September 2016, when President Obama visited Laos and made a momentous announcement. The money that the U.S. had granted for the clearing-up work in the country, from 1994 and until the formation of Legacies, averaged about $2 million dollars a year. From 2008 to 2015, it had slowly grown to $15 million. Now Obama announced that the sum would be doubled for each of the following three years. And, as he announced this, he acknowledged the work of Channapha Khamvongsa.
In 2019, Channapha decided to step away from the leadership role that she has played in Legacies and pass the mantle to a new person to carry on her remarkable work. Her legacy will be in the lives she has saved from unexploded ordnance in the country of her birth.
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