Lee Pao Xiong, founding director of the Center for Hmong Studies at Concordia University, holds a poster depicting unexploded ordinance on July 27, 2023. The bombs still pose a danger in Southeast Asia after being used during the Vietnam War. Credit: Aaron Nesheim | Sahan Journal

Local and national Southeast Asian community leaders are urging President Joe Biden and Ukraine to reconsider using cluster bombs against Russia, citing the devastation they continue to cause in Southeast Asia nearly half a century after the Vietnam War ended.

Biden promised in July to send cluster bombs to Ukraine in its fight against Russia, noting that the Ukrainian military was running out of ammunition. The bombs are banned by the United Nations and more than 100 countries, including Afghanistan, Iraq, the United Kingdom, and Canada. The United States has not agreed to prohibit their use, putting it in the company of countries such as North Korea and Russia, among several others.

“If I was the government of Ukraine, I would be hesitant to accept it,” said Lee Pao Xiong, director of the Center for Hmong Studies at Concordia University in St. Paul. “It may destroy your enemy, but after your enemy is gone, it’s your population that’s going to suffer—and they will continue to suffer over the next 50 years like Laos.”

The Hmong community in Minnesota and national advocates worry that history is repeating itself.

A display at the COPE Visitor Centre in Vientiane, Laos, in February 2018 shows how an artillery shell breaks apart to release tennis ball-sized cluster bombs. Credit: Chao Xiong | Sahan Journal

Cluster bombs caused significant damage during and after the Vietnam War, particularly in Laos, the most heavily bombed country per capita in history, according to Legacies of War, a Washington D.C.-based* organization that advocates for the removal of unexploded cluster bombs. The United States dropped more than 13 million tons of cluster bombs in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam during the war.

Most of the bombs were dropped along the Ho Chi Minh trail, which snaked through northern Laos where most of the country’s Hmong people lived, said Xiong, adding that more bombs were dropped in Laos than World War I and II combined. The trail was targeted because the North Vietnamese used it to transport supplies into South Vietnam.

But many of the cluster bombs didn’t explode upon contact with the ground. Many remain concealed underground 48 years after the Vietnam War ended in 1975, posing a threat to residents. At least 200,000 people to date have been injured, permanently disabled, or killed due to decades-old unexploded ordnances in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, according to Legacies of War.

Legacies of War issued a letter encouraging President Joe Biden to reconsider the offer to Ukraine. 

“The U.S. administration’s decision to send cluster munitions to Ukraine is short-sighted, inhumane and shows the inability to learn lessons from its own history,” the organization’s CEO, Sera Koulabdara, told Sahan Journal. “Cluster munitions will claim the lives of Ukrainian men, women, children now, and those yet to be born decades from now. We know this through looking at what they have done to places like Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam.”

Cluster bombs are small tennis ball-sized munitions that are contained in large canisters. The canisters are launched and open mid-air to disperse tens or hundreds of cluster munitions over the equivalent of about five football fields, according to Koulabdara. In Laos, they were dropped from airplanes overhead.

The bombs are supposed to explode on impact, but many lay dormant in the ground, where they are later uncovered by people. Such bombs are called unexploded ordnances.

Civilians account for 97 percent of the casualties from cluster bombs globally; more than 60 percent of them are children, according to Koulabdara. Fewer than 10 percent of cluster bombs that remain in the ground in Laos* have been destroyed.

Fifty people died from cluster bombs in 2022, said Koulabdara, adding that a bomb detonates 60 percent of the time it is discovered.

Cluster bombs cause “unacceptable harm” to civilians, according to the Convention of Cluster Munitions, the international treaty countries ratify when agreeing not to use cluster bombs. The bombs cover a wide area, increasing the chances of impacting civilians; they have a “high” failure rate; and they pose socio-economic consequences because land contaminated by bombs cannot be safely used or developed. 

Xiong took a group of Concordia students to Laos in 2012. They walked on a path in Phonsavan, the capital city of Xiangkhouang Province in northern Laos, where many signs warned them not to stray from the path. Their guides explained that there could be unexploded ordnances buried beyond the path. 

Farmers working the land and children who happen upon them and think of them as toys have been impacted the most by the hidden bombs, which have also exploded after people unwittingly build fires over or near them. Xiong’s students also visited organizations that provide prosthetic limbs and wheelchairs to bomb victims.

“The unintended consequence is great, and that’s where the tragedy comes into play,” Xiong said. “You have farmers cultivating the ground and they stumble upon it. You have children playing around in the field that discover it.”

Brian Xiong, president of the Hmong Archives in St. Paul, said his uncle’s neighbor in Laos was killed by an unexploded ordnance. They were farming and dug into a bomb, which killed all five family members.

“When kids see it, they don’t know what it is and they pick it up and it explodes. There might be other kids who use slingshots,” Brian Xiong said. “It’s just really sad.”

Cheng Va Vue is chair of the history department and family development at the Hmong 18 Council, a group of Hmong community leaders representing 18 clans. He said it’s not uncommon for the Hmong people to continue hearing stories about cluster bomb victims.

“I heard stories of people escaping during the war, there were bombs that exploded, and the shrapnel would kill a good number of people. It’s just too much to even think about. It’s like a genocide,” Vue said. “It could help Ukraine, maybe, withstand severe forces, but then a lot of people are losing lives.”

According to Koulabdara with the Legacies of War, a third of the land in Ukraine is already polluted with unexploded ordnances and land mines from the current conflict with Russia.

Brian Xiong displays objects made from scrap metal, some from the shrapnel of cluster bombs, at the Hmong 18 Council on Wednesday July 26, 2023. Credit: Hibah Ansari | Sahan Journal

On a recent afternoon, Brian Xiong laid out a collection of metal objects—spoons, mini airplanes, a small star, and a dove—on a table at the Hmong 18 Council conference room. The trinkets, he said, were made from scraps of metal that locals in Laos found on the ground, some from the shrapnel of cluster bombs. Residents create the objects for their own use, or may sell them for $1 or so.

“If they were to use these bombs again,” he said, “you will see history repeat itself.”

*Correction and clarification: This story has been updated to reflect the accurate city Legacies of War is based in as well as the country where minimal cluster bombs have been destroyed.

Hibah Ansari is a reporter for Sahan Journal covering immigration and politics. She was named the 2022 Young Journalist of the Year by the Minnesota Society of Professional Journalists. She’s a graduate...