By Murray Hiebert and Phuong Nguyen
[Editor's note: This post is the second in a two part series on legacy issues in the U.S.-Laos relationship given Secretary Clinton's historic visit prior to the 2012 ASEAN Regional Forum.]
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to the Lao capital of Vientiane July 11 gives the U.S. government an opportunity to try to jump start efforts to complete an accounting of the remains of U.S. servicemen missing in Laos since the war there ended in 1975.
Cooperation on accounting for the missing in action (MIAs) over the years was critical to the rapprochement between the United States and Laos and increased political, military, and economic cooperation in the 1990s and early 2000s. Lao assistance in the search for MIAs played a critical role in the congressional approval in 2005 of Permanent Normal Trade Relations for Laos, a key requirement for the country to join the World Trade Organization, which is expected to happen later this year.
But Lao cooperation with the United States on accounting for MIAs appears to have languished over the past year or two. U.S. officials say that the Lao have introduced various policies and equipment charges which pose significant challenges to continued excavations.
In 2011, Laos cancelled a joint search mission with the U.S. Pacific Command’s Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), citing a lack of air transport. In February, Laos refused to allow JPAC teams to drive to camps near excavation sites for security reasons. Flying to all excavation sites is difficult because the Lao government has only provided one helicopter to carry U.S. military personnel to the field for the excavation of crash sites. Lao officials have also attempted to levy significantly higher aircraft charges for JPAC’s field operations in recent years. The JPAC commander refused to sign a long term contract with these higher aircraft fees and cut back the size of at least some recent operations.
These moves follow significant progress over the past two decades. Over 40 percent of the U.S. missing have been accounted for since cooperation began in 1992. Currently 318 cases remain.
JPAC in recent years has conducted five joint excavations a year with its Lao counterparts, assisted Laos with its unilateral investigations, and coordinated trilateral investigations with Vietnamese witnesses at Lao crash sites. JPAC and the Lao Ministry of Foreign Affairs hold semi-annual consultative talks on MIA accounting. At this year’s consultative talks in February, Laos agreed to JPAC’s proposal to reduce the number of annual joint excavations to four and extend the duration of each excavation beginning in Fiscal Year 2013.
Different theories may explain why Laos has made cooperation more difficult. First, although the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party is heavily influenced ideologically by both China and Vietnam, the Lao political elite seek to maintain the country’s strategic independence through ties with the United States. At the same time, the leadership of Laos, a small landlocked country of only 7 million people and a GDP of only $7 billion, is wary of strong U.S. advocacy for democracy and human rights. Suspicion of U.S. intentions runs high within the ruling politburo, which tries to limit foreign presence in the country. In addition, senior Lao officials who worked alongside JPAC from the beginning have been promoted to higher positions, leaving behind a trust gap between the two sides.
Second, the Lao government began MIA cooperation with the United States motivated by the prospects for U.S. assistance and funding for clearing unexploded ordnance. (As the most heavily-bombed country during the Vietnam War, one-third of Laos is still riddled with unexploded ordnance and only 1 percent of contaminated land has been cleared). While Congress in April recommended $10 million be spent on land mine removal in Laos in FY2013, up from about $2.7 million earlier, the U.S. government has not accorded ordnance clearance the same priority as MIA accounting.
The United States has taken some steps to steer the relationship back on track. The recent decision by Congress to make available $10 million a year for clearing ordnance in Laos demonstrates a U.S. commitment to building better ties with the country. Secretary Clinton’s visit to Laos, the first by a U.S. secretary of state in nearly six decades, reinforces the U.S. interest to engage Laos as a member of ASEAN.
Clinton’s meeting with Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong will provide an opportunity for Laos to ease its restrictions on the MIA accounting process. Not only is this critical to improving U.S.-Lao relations, it is also a meaningful way to reaffirm ASEAN’s message of welcoming the U.S. presence and role in the region. Lao leaders have a window of opportunity to show the United States and their ASEAN neighbors that Laos is a constructive player in Southeast Asia and the larger Asia-Pacific.
Murray Hiebert is a senior fellow and deputy director of the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS. Phuong Nguyen is a research intern with the CSIS Southeast Asia Program.
Murray Hiebert serves as senior fellow and deputy director of the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at CSIS.