Ukraine Can Learn From Southeast Asia

Cambodia and Laos have direct experience with the aftermath of U.S. cluster bombs, now deployed on the battlefield in Ukraine.

By , an independent journalist based in Bangkok.
A visitor views an exhibit of cluster bomb remnants at the Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise Visitor Center in Vientiane, Laos, on July 11.
A visitor views an exhibit of cluster bomb remnants at the Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise Visitor Center in Vientiane, Laos, on July 11.
A visitor views an exhibit of cluster bomb remnants at the Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise Visitor Center in Vientiane, Laos, on July 11. Kaikeo Saiyasane/Xinhua via Getty Images

Russia’s War in Ukraine

Last month, the Biden administration gave in to Ukrainian requests and decided to supply cluster bombs to Kyiv. Fifteen years ago, many countries around the world agreed to never again use the controversial weapons, which scatter bomblets indiscriminately over a wide area and pose a particular risk to civilians for decades afterward. Neither Ukraine nor the United States are signatories to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, but the move was met with dismay from U.S. allies, such as Canada, Germany, and the United Kingdom.

Last month, the Biden administration gave in to Ukrainian requests and decided to supply cluster bombs to Kyiv. Fifteen years ago, many countries around the world agreed to never again use the controversial weapons, which scatter bomblets indiscriminately over a wide area and pose a particular risk to civilians for decades afterward. Neither Ukraine nor the United States are signatories to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, but the move was met with dismay from U.S. allies, such as Canada, Germany, and the United Kingdom.

Leaders in countries still grappling with the aftermath of cluster bombs on their soil were also compelled to comment. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen urged both U.S. President Joe Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky not to use the weapons “because the real victims will be the Ukrainians.” Meanwhile, Laos’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs described Laos as the “world’s largest victim of cluster munitions” in a statement that did not mention Kyiv or Washington by name but expressed “profound concern” over possible use. Former U.S. ambassadors to both countries joined the outcry.

Southeast Asia has lessons to teach and experience to share: It is one of the regions most contaminated with land mines and other unexploded ordnance (UXO) and has grappled with the fallout for decades. Most remnants date to the Vietnam War and U.S. bombing campaigns in Cambodia and Laos. For communities on the ground, the effects of the conflict are far from over. Every year UXO—including from cluster rounds—still kills and maims civilians, rendering territory unsafe for generations to come.

Biden called the move to send cluster bombs to Ukraine a “difficult decision,” as the White House had previously sharply criticized Russia for deploying the controversial weapons since its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. But the Pentagon defended supplying Kyiv with cluster bombs by pointing out that the prospect of Moscow winning the war would be “the worst thing for civilians in Ukraine.” Ukraine is still waiting for tanks and other munitions promised by the United States, but the cluster bombs arrived promptly. The Ukrainian military said they have already proved effective on the battlefield.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration’s decision has raised fears among advocates for UXO removal in Southeast Asia. Sera Koulabdara, the CEO of Legacies of War, a U.S.-based advocacy group for a bomb-free Laos, this year chairs Cluster Munition Coalition U.S., part of a global campaign to eradicate the weapons. She criticized the U.S. decision: “We’re helping to contaminate new territory while we haven’t even been able to clean up the mess we caused elsewhere,” she said. Koulabdara also worries that providing cluster bombs to Ukraine may set a precedent for future conflicts, despite years of progress toward banning the weapons.

Koulabdara has her own experience with cluster munitions. Born in southern Laos more than a decade after the last bomb was dropped in the country, she relocated to the United States with her family in 1990. But she remembers vividly how her father, a surgeon, tended to people wounded by UXO and amputated limbs, often operating on children like herself. During the U.S. bombing campaign between 1964 and 1973—termed the “secret war” because it was not disclosed to the American public at the time—U.S. jets dropped the equivalent of one planeload of bombs in Laos every eight minutes for nine years. According to the Lao government, more than 50,000 civilians have been killed or injured by UXO in the decades since, a large part after the war had ended. Although by 2022, annual casualties had dropped to fewer than 50 per year, most accidents are still deadly; almost half the victims are children.

Advocates also worry that international funding for UXO removal could dry up before all the land is cleared. In the face of a seemingly insurmountable task, some people working on the issue are no longer pushing for fully eliminating UXO, but instead setting their sights on bringing casualties down to zero. Regardless, the argument that Ukrainian territory would need to be cleared from Russian munitions anyway—with or without Ukrainian cluster rounds—sounds cynical to those with direct experience with the remnants of cluster bombs.

No matter how the munitions are deployed in Ukraine, “[t]he impact of cluster bombs will be long-lasting, and it will affect innocent civilians,” said Heng Ratana, the director general of the Cambodian Mine Action Centre (CMAC), a government agency working on clearing the country of U.S. bomb remnants, as well as other UXO from the country’s civil war. Clearance operations have been ongoing in Cambodia for more than three decades, and the organization has already reported 30 casualties in 2023. Organizations such as CMAC have valuable experience to share with Ukraine.

Mine risk education in Southeast Asia has brought down casualty numbers over the decades. Ratana recommends that Ukrainian civilians—and particularly children—must be warned about cluster bomb submunitions, which often appear innocuous, for a long time to come. With demining underway in parts of Ukraine, Cambodia has already offered its expertise in clearing territory. In January, CMAC hosted a team of Ukrainian deminers for a training on a new Japanese mine detection technology. Professionals from both countries also came together in Poland for a training last month, and future cooperation with Ukraine is under discussion.

Despite their experience with UXO, neither Cambodia nor Vietnam are signatories to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, pointing out that neighbors such as China and Thailand have also declined to sign on. The news that the United States would send cluster bombs to Ukraine has drawn renewed attention to countries’ absence from the accord. Norwegian People’s Aid, a humanitarian group working on demining former war zones, has used the occasion to call on all states that are not yet party to join the convention, aiming to add momentum to efforts to ban the weapons from the global stage.

Nevertheless, many people in Ukraine have welcomed the U.S. decision to supply cluster bombs. Ukrainian media seem to be asking how dangerous the weapons really are for civilians. There is already available evidence nearby. Before Washington began supplying cluster bombs, Kyiv tapped into its own Soviet-era stockpile of cluster rounds, shelling Russian-occupied territory with them. Human Rights Watch documented incidents in which civilians were killed or wounded by Ukrainian cluster submunitions around the city of Izium. (The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense denies the allegations). The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine has also reported casualties in civilian areas.

Of course, war is full of hard choices. “If you fight for your life, you want any type of weapon; I understand that,” said Mike Burton, a former U.S. Air Force officer who participated in the mission to drop cluster bombs over Laos and now sits on the board of Legacies of War. But to him, the end does not justify the means when it comes to using cluster bombs, no matter how they are deployed. Burton added that he never expected the U.S. government to supply its cluster bombs to Ukraine. “Will the U.S. also be there to clean up the mess, provide prosthetics, help people who get blinded by explosions?” he asked.

Back in Laos, disability activist Phongsawat Manitsong has direct experience with the aftermath of U.S. bombing campaigns. In 2008, he lost his eyesight and both his hands when his friend passed him a bomblet thinking it was a toy. He now counsels others on how to navigate the consequences of similar disabilities, from negotiating flashbacks to using a mobile phone. Many of his fellow survivors struggle to find work.

“Ukrainians need to recognize how many people are going to get injured, not only now but also after the war,” Phongsawat warned. Seeing the cluster bombs that have scarred his homeland being used again with U.S. support disturbs him: “There [are] so many disabled people in Laos who can’t live a normal life and would need support from the U.S. but are not getting it.”

Verena Hölzl is an independent journalist based in Bangkok. Twitter: @verenahoelzl

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