Editors' Note: Guest blogger Nakhone Keodara is the Campaign Coordinator of A Peaceful Legacy: Campaign to Remove Bombs from Laos, and sits on the Advocacy Committee of Legacies of War. He is a community organizer and founder of the Gays United Network and Editor-in-Chief of SoCal Voice based in Los Angeles.
I was one of those Sally Struthers' babies in the Christian Children's Fund brochures, a young child running around my village in Laos, barefoot and naked, playing in the rice paddies. One afternoon I was playing by a pond when I spotted a water snake swimming toward me hissing, as if delivering a message. Running away, heart thumping, I heard a distant buzzing sound from above.
I saw an airplane and a small voice told me that one day I would ride that iron eagle to America--a place my sister Samountha had moved to some years before. I was probably 6 years old. That was almost 29 years ago. It seems the water snake's prophecy came to pass.
I am an adult now, a gay man living in the United States. I have come to believe I was sent to this country for a reason--to help with efforts to erase the legacies of war that the U.S. left behind in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War-era. For Laos, this effort is focused on the removal of unexploded ordnance (UXO), including over 80 million unexploded cluster bomblets as well as large bombs, rockets, mortars, and land mines.
This is a humanitarian issue, a social justice issue, and a compelling human rights issue on par with LGBT rights.
When the Bombs Started Falling
For several years after the end of the civil war in Laos, conflict continued between Laos and neighboring Thailand. I've experienced the horror of bombs falling during an attack by the Thai Air Force.
I still recall my mother waking us up in the night. We could hardly make out what she was telling us as she screamed through her tears for us to hold onto each other's hands.
The ground was trembling as we ran through the woods, fumbling, crouching down to hide beside bamboo stands as explosions flashed all around us from the bombs being dropped. Flares shot up as high as the tallest trees and lit up the night sky with blinding brilliance.
We hid in ravines or in water ditches beneath roads. Eventually we made our way to the nearest village, where strangers took us in and let us sleep underneath their houses.
Escape in the Night
Like close to 750,000 other Laotians who fled Laos after the war, my family escaped in 1984. My father had been in the Royal Lao Army and feared punishment by the now communist government. He envisioned a better future for us in America.
In the night, a family of eight packed into a rowboat crossing the Mekong River headed for Thailand. Halfway across my mother started praying to the spirit of the Serpents to save our family from drowning. The boat was filling with water.
In desperation, we turned around and headed back to the Laotian shore; we risked capture and execution by the government Border Patrols if we were caught. Our boat sank after we hit the riverbank, but we jumped out to safety.
We huddled in the bamboo stands shivering for about an hour before a second boat was fetched to take us on our way. The stakes were high, but all we wanted was freedom and an opportunity to pursue the American dream!
A Terrible Distinction
While many Americans are aware of U.S. bombing in Vietnam and Cambodia and the impacts of Agent Orange, very few Americans have any knowledge of the massive U.S. air campaign in Laos. From 1963 to 1974, the U.S. military waged a secret war against Laos, a neutral country, during the Vietnam War-era.
Laos has the terrible distinction of being the most bombed country in the history of the world. The U.S. dropped over two million tons of bombs in 580,000 bombing missions on Laos. This is the equivalent to one planeload of bombs dropped every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine continuous years.
Since 1993, the United Nations Development Program and 18 countries, including the U.S., have provided funding to Laos for the removal of cluster bombs and other UXO. The Lao government and a number of nongovernmental organizations have made modest progress in clearing contaminated lands.
However, given the current level of funding and the extraordinary scale of the contamination, it will take decades before land in populated areas is cleared and safe once again. Laos desperately needs substantial increases in funding to clean up the mess that the U.S. left four decades ago.
A Natural Ally
The religious right is right that the fight for marriage equality is spiritual in nature. As such, we have to engage in this war from that perspective. We must not ignore the spiritual side of things. Gay people must take our place at the table among society.
We have to stretch our boundaries and get out of our comfort zones and help other causes. We should demand that the US clear unexploded bombs in Laos left there during the Vietnam War. The United States inflicted a huge injustice on tens of thousands of innocent civilians in Laos. The time has come to make amends.
This is a gay issue because the bombs were falling all around me when I was a child and it impacted my emotional and psychological well-being. My family is still dealing with it. My mom and two siblings are raising their families back in Laos. I don't want to see my niece and nephew become victims of unexploded land mines and I'm not the only gay person from Laos.
Any movement for social justice cannot obtain its objective by acting alone, whether it is the gay civil rights movement or Laotian American community's effort to clear the land mines. As a gay man, I am advocating that the LGBT community align itself with Lao Americans to form alliances for mutual benefits.
Gays need allies to support our issues and Lao Americans need support in getting funding to remove UXO from Laos. Building bridges to the Lao community would benefit the LGBT community. A majority of Lao Americans are our natural allies as they are mainly Buddhists; a recent Poll4Equality poll revealed that Buddhists are in favor of marriage equality.
America is a great country and her citizens are capable of much love for their fellow human beings. The whole world witnessed the great depth of compassion that poured forth in the aftermath of horrendous tragedies like 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the Indonesian tsunami, and, most recently, the China earthquake.
I implore the American LGBT community to find its compassion for the people of Laos! Together, we can make a difference in the world community.
What you can do to help: Sign our petition and urge Congressional members to vote for increased funding for Laos in Fiscal Year 2010.