Obama Promises Bomb Clearance, School-Lunch Program in First Laos Visit

President Obama speaks with the Laos flag in the background at the Lao National Cultural Hall in Vientiane, Laos, on Sept. 6, 2016. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

President Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Laos today, “acknowledging the suffering and sacrifices on all sides of that conflict” in which the U.S. dropped more than two million tons of bombs on the country and pledging $90 million to help clean up unexploded ordnance.

In remarks at the Lao National Cultural Hall in Vientiane, Obama lauded the country’s “tapestry of proud ethnic groups and indigenous peoples” and the Buddhist faith “that tells you that you have a moral duty to each other, to live with kindness and honesty, and that we can help end suffering if we embrace the right mindset and the right actions.”

“I realize that having a U.S. president in Laos would have once been unimaginable,” he said. “Six decades ago, this country fell into civil war. And as the fighting raged next door in Vietnam, your neighbors and foreign powers, including the United States, intervened here. As a result of that conflict and its aftermath, many people fled or were driven from their homes.”

“At the time, the U.S. government did not acknowledge America’s role. It was a secret war, and for years, the American people did not know. Even now, many Americans are not fully aware of this chapter in our history, and it’s important that we remember today.”

The president added that from 1964 to 1973 the United States dropped more bombs on Laos “than we dropped on Germany and Japan combined during all of World War II.”

“Villages and entire valleys were obliterated. The ancient Plain of Jars was devastated. Countless civilians were killed. And that conflict was another reminder that, whatever the cause, whatever our intentions, war inflicts a terrible toll, especially on innocent men, women and children,” he said, stressing that a “spirit of reconciliation is what brings me here today.”

Obama acknowledged the country’s human rights problems, adding “we have shown from Cuba to Burma to Vietnam the best way to deliver progress for all of our peoples is by closer cooperation between our countries.”

He announced a new relationship with Laos that doubled current funding to clear unexploded bombs over the next three years and “allow Laotians to farm more land, and increase support for victims.”

“Given our history here, I believe that the United States has a moral obligation to help Laos heal. And even as we continue to deal with the past, our new partnership is focused on the future.”

Part of that, Obama said, will be to “promote nutrition and bring more healthy meals to children in school so they can grow strong, focus in class, and realize their full potential.”

“We’ll help more children learn how to read.  We’ll bring more American teachers here to help teach English, and more Lao teachers to America to strengthen their English.  And I’m proud to announce that an initiative that’s very important to me and to my wife Michelle, an initiative called Let Girls Learn, is coming to Laos and Nepal. We believe that the daughters of Laos have just as much talent and potential as your sons,” he said to applause. “And none of our countries anywhere in the world can truly succeed unless our girls and our women have every opportunity to succeed, the same opportunities as boys and men do.”

Microsoft and General Electric, he noted, “are helping to increase training in engineering and technology” in the country as “young people in Laos shouldn’t have to move someplace else in order to prosper.” He also vowed to work with the country on environmental and green-energy projects.

The president stressed that “the Trans-Pacific Partnership is so important — not only because TPP countries, including the United States, will be able to sell more goods to each other, but it also has important strategic benefits.’

“TPP is a core pillar of America’s rebalance to the Asia Pacific. And the trade and the growth it supports will reinforce America’s security alliances and regional partnerships. It will build greater integration and trust across this region,” he said. “And I have said before and I will say again:  Failure to move ahead with TPP would not just have economic consequences, but would call into question America’s leadership in this vital region. So as difficult as the politics are back home, I will continue to push hard on the U.S. Congress to approve TPP before I leave office, because I think it is important for this entire region and it is important for the United States.”

“…This is the partnership that America offers here in Laos and across the Asia Pacific. Respect for your sovereignty. Security and peace through cooperation. Investment in the health of children. Education for students. Support for entrepreneurs. Development and trade that creates jobs for all of us and protects our environment. A commitment to rights and dignity that is borne out of our common humanity.”