VIENTIANE, Laos — Decades after the United States gave Laos a horrific distinction as the world's most heavily bombed nation per person, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton pledged Wednesday to help get rid of millions of unexploded bombs that still pockmark the impoverished country — and still kill.
The United States dropped more than 2 million tons of bombs on the North Vietnamese ally during its "secret war" between 1964 and 1973 — about a ton of ordnance for each Laotian man, woman and child. That exceeded the amount per person dropped on Germany and Japan together in World War II.
Four decades later, American weapons are still claiming lives. When the war ended, about a third of some 270 million cluster bombs dropped on Laos had failed to detonate. More than 20,000 people have been killed in Laos since then by ordnance, according to its government, and agricultural development has been stymied.
Clinton, gauging whether a nation the United States pummeled in wartime can evolve into a new foothold of American influence in Asia, met with the prime minister and foreign minister, part of a diplomatic tour of Southeast Asia. The goal is to bolster America's standing in some of the fastest-growing markets of the world, and counter China's expanding economic, diplomatic and military dominance of the region.
Clinton said she and Laotian leaders "traced the arc of our relationship from addressing the tragic legacies of the past to finding a way to being partners of the future."
In her meetings, Clinton discussed environmental concerns over a proposed dam on the Mekong River as well as investment opportunities and the joint efforts to clean up the tens of millions of unexploded bombs.
Clinton visited a Buddhist temple and a U.S.-funded prosthetic center for victims of American munitions. There, she met a man named Phongsavath Souliyalat, who told her how he had lost both his hands and his eyesight from a cluster bomb on his 16th birthday, four years ago.
"We have to do more," Clinton told him.
The United States is spending $9 million this year on cleanup operations for unexploded ordnance in Laos and is likely to offer more in the coming days.