President Obama Delivers Remarks at the COPE Visitor Center

President Obama: Good
morning, everybody. As you saw, we just had the
opportunity to learn more about the very important
work that’s being done here at the COPE Center, and
about the magnitude of the challenge posed by
unexploded ordnance. For many people, war is
something that you read about in books — you learn
the names of battles, the dates of conflicts, and you
look at maps and images that depict events from long ago. For the United States, one
of the wars from our history is the conflict called
the Vietnam War. It’s a long and complicated
conflict that took the lives of many brave
young Americans. But we also know that
despite its American name, what we call it, this
war was not contained to Vietnam. It included many years of
fighting and bombing in Cambodia and here in Laos. But for all those years
in the 1960s and ’70s, America’s intervention here
in Laos was a secret to the American people, who were
separated by vast distances and a Pacific Ocean, and
there was no Internet, and information didn’t
flow as easily. For the people of Laos,
obviously, this war was no secret. Over the course of roughly
a decade, the United States dropped more bombs on Laos
than Germany and Japan during World War II. Some 270 million cluster
bomblets were dropped on this country. You can see some of these
displays showing everything that landed on relatively
simple homes like this, and farms and rural areas. By some estimates, more
bombs per capita were dropped on Laos than any
other country in the world. For the people of Laos, war
was also something that was not contained to
a battlefield. In addition to soldiers and
supply lines, bombs that fell from the sky killed
and injured many civilians, leaving painful absences
for so many families. For the people of Laos, the
war did not end when the bombs stopped falling. Eighty million cluster
munitions did not explode. They were spread across
farmlands, jungles, villages, rivers. So for the last four
decades, Laotians have continued to live under
the shadow of war. Some 20,000 people have been
killed or wounded by this unexploded ordnance, or UXO. For the people of Laos,
then, these are not just statistics. These bomblets have taken
the lives of farmers working in the fields, traders
gathering scrap metal, children playing outside who
thought these small, metal balls could be
turned into a toy. And for the people of Laos,
this is also about the ability to make
a good living. In communities that rely so
much on agriculture, you can’t reach your potential
on land that is littered with UXOs. As one farmer said, “We need
our land to be cleared of bombs. If it weren’t for the
bombs, I would multiply my production.” We also know that the people
of Laos are resilient. We see that determination
in members of the clearance teams that we met, men and
women who have worked for years — this very young
lady says she’s been at it for 20 years — all across
this country to find UXO and eliminate them one by one. And I’m glad that we could
be joined by them today. We see the determination
in the survivors of UXOs. Some of you heard me talking
to Thoummy Silamphan, who joins us here today. When he was just a young
child, he was badly wounded by a UXO explosion and
lost his left hand. But rather than losing hope,
he’s dedicated his life to providing hope for others. Through his organization,
the Quality of Life Association, Thoummy has
helped survivors get medical care, find work, rebuild
their lives with a sense of dignity. And we see that
determination in the many organizations like this one. Here at COPE, you provide
assistance to those who have suffered because of UXO
while shining a spotlight on the work that still
has to be done. And in that effort, I’m very
glad that America is your partner. When I took office, we were
spending $3 million each year to address the
enormous challenge of UXO. We have steadily increased
that amount, up to $15 million last year. This funding — together
with the work of the Lao government, UXO Lao, other
international donors and several non-governmental
organizations — has allowed us to fund clearance efforts
while also developing plans for a nationwide survey that
can help locate UXO and focus clearance efforts on
areas that have the most potential for
economic development. So yesterday, I was proud
to announce a significant increase in America’s
commitment to this work. We will invest $90 million
over the next three years to this effort. Our hope is that this
funding can mark a decisive step forward in the work of
rolling back the danger of UXO — clearing bombs,
supporting survivors, and advancing a better future
for the people of Laos. As President of the United
States, I believe that we have a profound moral and
humanitarian obligation to support this work. We’re a nation that was
founded on the belief in the dignity of every
human being. Sometimes we’ve struggled to
stay true to that belief, but that is precisely why
we always have to work to address those difficult
moments in history and to forge friendships with
people who we once called enemies. That belief in the value of
every human being is what motivates the teams of
Americans who travel to remote parts of this land to
find the remains of hundreds of Americans who have been
missing so that their families can receive
some measure of comfort. That belief has to lead us
to value the life of every young Lao boy and girl, who
deserve to be freed from the fear of the shadow of a war
that happened long ago. Doing this work
also builds trust. History does not have to
drive us apart; it can sometimes pull us together. And addressing the most
painful chapters in our history honestly and openly
can create openings, as it has done in Vietnam, to work
together on other issues, so that violence is replaced
by peaceful commerce, cooperation, and
people-to-people ties. And above all, acknowledging
the history of war and how it’s experienced concretely
by ordinary people is a way that we make future
wars less likely. We have to force ourselves
to remember that war is not just about words written
in books, or the names of famous men and battles. War is about the countless
millions who suffer in the shadows of war — the
innocents who die, and the bombs that remain unexploded
in fields decades after. Here in Laos, here at COPE,
we see the victims of bombs that were dropped because
of decisions made half a century ago and we are
reminded that wars always carry tremendous costs,
many of them unintended. People have suffered, and
we’ve also seen, though, how people can be resourceful
and resilient. It helps us recognize
our common humanity. And we can remember that
most people want to live lives of peace and security. We embrace the hope that out
of this history, we can make decisions that lead to a
better future for the people of Laos, for the United
States, for the world. Thank you very
much, everybody.

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