In Laos, Clinton grapples with Vietnam War legacy

VIENTIANE Wed Jul 11, 2012 9:48am EDT

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (L) speaks with Laos' Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong at the Government Office in Vientiane July 11, 2012. REUTERS/Kham Phan Lasamouth

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (L) speaks with Laos' Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong at the Government Office in Vientiane July 11, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Kham Phan Lasamouth

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VIENTIANE (Reuters) - Hillary Clinton confronted a painful legacy of the Vietnam War on Wednesday when she met a man who lost his eyesight and both hands to a cluster bomb as she made the first visit to Laos by a U.S. secretary of state in nearly six decades.

The United States dropped more bombs on the Southeast Asian nation than it did on Germany and Japan combined in World War Two in a futile effort to destroy North Vietnamese supply lines to the South along the Ho Chi Minh trail.

More than three decades after the Vietnam War's end, the country is still struggling to rid itself of an estimated 80 million cluster munitions and other unexploded ordnance that kill and maim as many as 100 people a year.

"Here in Laos, the past is always with us," Clinton said after touring a center that makes prosthetic devices for victims and whose visitors' center includes hanging sculptures made from dangling cluster bomblets and from worn-out prosthetic limbs.

Clinton's roughly four-hour stop in the one-party Communist state was the first by a U.S. secretary of state since John Foster Dulles visited Vientiane in 1955. Then, Dulles' plane circled the airport until a buffalo could be coaxed off the tarmac.

Clinton's talks with the Laotian prime and foreign ministers constituted an attempt to improve relations with a country that has kept its distance from the United States but is now looking for better ties, in part as a counterweight to regional players China and Vietnam.

"When I met with the foreign minister, we traced the arc of our relationship from addressing the tragic legacies of the past to finding new ways to partner for the future," Clinton told U.S. diplomats as she wrapped up her stay.

During her short visit, Clinton laid an offering of lotus flowers in the lap of a statue at a 16th century Buddhist temple.

And at the Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise, which helps victims of unexploded ordnance, Clinton spent about 10 minutes chatting with Phongsavath Souliyalat, a young man who cradled a white cane between the two stumps of his arms as they spoke.

Souliyalat described how four years ago, on his 16th birthday, he was walking home from school with a friend who picked up a cluster bomblet and handed it to him. The bomb exploded, taking both his hands and leaving him blind.

"I would like to see all governments ban cluster bombs and (try) to clear the bombs together and to help the survivors," Souliyalat said. "I am lucky because I got help ... but so many survivors are without help. Their life is very very hard."

"You are absolutely right," Clinton replied. "We need to do more."

(Editing by Jeremy Laurence)

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