Barack Obama’s first trip to sleepy Laos — and indeed, the first by any sitting U.S. President — but American foreign policy still haunts this landlocked Southeast Asian nation.
U.S. forces covertly dropped 2 million tons of ordnance here during the Vietnam War, making this communist backwater of barely 7 million people the world’s most heavily bombed country. Today, unexploded cluster bombs and mines intended to disrupt North Vietnamese supply routes continue to kill and maim — especially in rural areas, where curious children stumble across tennis ball-sized munitions.
At this week’s Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit, Obama attempted to exorcise some of these ghosts. “Given our history here, I believe that the United States has a moral obligation to help Laos heal,” Obama told an audience in the Laotian capital Vientiane, committing an additional $90 millionover the three years toward removing unexploded ordnance.
But as Obama tried to heal old wounds, new ones opened — illustrating both the lingering and fresh challenges of his faltering “rebalancing” to Asia. On Tuesday, new Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte expressed “regret” that he called Obama a “son of a whore,” after the U.S. Commander in Chief stated his intention to raise the 2,000 extrajudicial killings of Duterte’s “drug war” during talks. Although Obama downplayed the spat, his team canceled the scheduled meeting.
It was high drama unfamiliar to Vientiane, a low-rise city of French-built boulevards studded with Buddhist temples, where Soviet hammer and sickle flags flutter outside iPhone repair shops. ASEAN’s most isolated state is also one of its most authoritarian, though Laos was thrown into the international spotlight when it was made bloc chair for 2016. This also made it the venue for Obama’s last attempt to woo a region increasingly beholden to rival superpower China before he departs the Oval Office.
Faced with a mounting budget deficit, and with the fracking revolution making disentanglement from a roiling Middle East a real possibility, the White House announced a political, military and economic “rebalancing” to Asia in 2012. But four years later, the reality is simmering conflict in the South China Sea, entrenched authoritarianism across Southeast Asia and stillborn efforts to boost business ties. Moreover, critics say that Washington’s preoccupation with countering Beijing’s influence has undermined support for core American values, such as democracy, electoral rigor and human-rights.
“The rebalancing is a complete failure on multiple levels,” says Bridget Welsh, a Southeast Asia expert at National Taiwan University. “Obama has left a worsening authoritarian legacy. But they couldn’t care less because it’s all about China.”
Certainly, Southeast Asia has regressed politically over the course of the “rebalance,” with the notable exception of Burma (officially called Myanmar), which has moved toward qualified democracy. A military junta has run Thailandsince a May 2014 coup d’état. Malaysia’s opposition leader is once again behind bars, while Prime Minister Najib Razak stands accused of embezzling $700 million of state funds. (He denies any wrongdoing). Singapore, Vietnam, Brunei and Laos remain autocratic, with the 2012 disappearance of award-winning activist Sombath Somphone still unexplained in the latter.