China-Laos railway started operations on December 3, 2021. It connects Kunming in southwest China’s Yunnan province with Vientiane, the Lao capital. The railway project is a significant milestone of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). However, the project faced many obstacles because of US dropped UXOs.
For the venture, aside from the severe construction complications and dangers of the project, the Chinese construction team faced a lethal threat in the form of a large number of unexploded ordnance (UXO) left by the United States during the Vietnam War. These UXOs had been buried along the railway.
China and Laos share contiguous borders with Laos being the only inland country in Southeast Asia. It has plateaus and mountains covering 80 percent of its 236,000 square kilometers area.
Prior to the completion of the China-Laos railway, the country only had 3.5 kilometers of railways, ranking fourth from the bottom globally, amongst the 146 states. Because of this very reason, Laos was known as a “landlocked country.”
The backward transport system not only limited the Lao people’s access to and from the outside, but also slowed economic development in the country. Thus, the China-Laos railway is of great significance as it has brought about win-win cooperation for the two countries under the umbrella of BRI. It has also provided opportunities for Lao people to achieve a better life.
The railway project is the first international railway built with Chinese investment. It uses Chinese equipment, adopts Chinese technical standards, and directly connects with China’s railway network. Amidst countless hardships, the project took five years to be completed.
The long negotiation process, as well as the extremely rare difficulties and risks–high environmental protection requirements, inadequate meteorological and geological conditions, and even access to no man’s land–made the project a formidable undertaking.
Nevertheless, the most deadly threat faced by the workers was a large amount of UXO from the US carpet bombing during the Vietnam War, which Laos was mired in at that time. During the war, the US at the behest of the CIA, covertly expanded the battlefield into Laos by flying 580,000 bombing missions between 1964 and 1973.
During this time, more than two million tons of bombs (or 270 million bombs), including the most dreaded cluster bombs were dropped into the country. The purpose of doing so was to block the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the supply route to the North Vietnamese forces.
270 million bombs in total weighing 2 million tons equaling eight bombs per minute on average were dropped on Laos within nine years making the total number of bombs dropped more than the ones dropped in World War II.
Laos had a population of about two million people at that time, giving each Laotian a ton of bombs, which made it “the most heavily bombed country per capita in the history of mankind.”
Even though the Vietnam War finally ended, the people of Laos are still living in its nightmarish and destructive aftermath. As per the claims of CBS, about 80 million dropped bombs remained unexploded, which is 30% of the total.
For a long time, these UXOs have been a danger to the lives of the Lao people. So much so that some parts of the land in Laos couldn’t be cultivated because of the bomb threat. Consequently, the country’s national construction and economic development have been negatively affected.
According to the government statistics, more than 50,000 Laotians, including many children, were killed by unexploded bombs, from 1975 to 2008. Additionally, the entire amount the US spent on removing UXOs in Laos between 1995 and 2013 was ironically equal to the cost of three days of bombing during the Vietnam War.
US President Barack Obama promised an additional $90 million for clearing UXOs when he visited Laos in 2016. However, he did not apologize for the bombing. The number of Lao people killed by UXOs has been reduced to dozens from thousands a year at the end of the war, in recent years. This has been accomplished with help from all sectors of society, though those bombs are still a lethal threat.
According to Vientiane Times, the national newspaper, bomb disposal teams in the country have destroyed more than 1.6 million UXOs on 70,000 hectares of land, including more than 4,200 large bombs during the 25 years between 1996 and 2020.
However, it could take approximately 50 years or even a century to completely remove them as three bomb disposal workers were killed in explosions, just at the end of 2021.
The task to remove the UXOs is extremely dangerous and requires great expertise as the bomb disposal teams have to explore every inch, whilst also protecting the land for cultivation.
The process takes more than two months to explore one acre (0.4 hectares) of land. Resultantly, bomb removal in Laos has been slow because of the low efficiency and high cost.
Even though the Mordin–Vientiane section of the China-Laos railway is located in the north-western region where there are fewer UXOs, the density of bombs there is still ominous.
According to Lao State News Agency (KPL), a 16.9 km long area with UXO was found at the Nateuy station of the China-Laos railway, in December 2016. The Lao Ministry of National Defence advised the provincial government of Luang Namtha about the still present UXO in one of the three villages that the railway was to pass through.
The Chinese construction company had to stop, pending bomb clearance when the bombs were found in the village of Natu, even though they had finished 70% of the survey work.
Simultaneously, an engineering head for the China-Laos railway from a Sinohydro unit of Beijing-based PowerChina, Liu Qianli, reached Luang Prabang. Luang Prabang is an ancient city in Laos where he found dense primeval forests and frequent roars of animals from within.
Despite the majestic nature, what really intimidated him were the ubiquitous UXOs in the mountains. In the wake of this discovery, he contacted the Lao Ministry of National Defence for bomb disposal. Subsequently, more than ten bombs measuring 30 to 40 centimeters in length were cleared from the construction site.
“To dig on a no man’s land is nothing compared to the fear of those unexploded bombs in the jungles, which makes me feel unprecedented pressure.” – Liu Qianli
Commander-in-chief of the project, Li Bin, who had 35 years of engineering experience, conveyed an identical experience. He stated that “You can never imagine the scenario on my first day here. The county chief and the militia led the way, and local people chopped trees. As machinery couldn’t get in, everyone had to inch forward on foot.”
“The UXOs here could not be cleared even in a hundred years. The construction process made people nervous.”– Li Bin
To assume that the China-Laos railway is probably one of the most dangerous railway projects in the world won’t be an exaggeration. Regardless, China and Laos did not give up and worked closely together to complete the project.
According to China’s Belt and Road portal, the Lao Ministry of National Defence assigned six solid units with the railway sections, as well as plentiful workers, vehicles, and the essential equipment to guarantee the project’s smooth progress, and clear unexploded bombs from the marked areas of the project. The clearance operation lasted from January to May 2017.
Meanwhile, the Chinese construction team temporarily stopped working to prevent danger. The team revised construction methods in spite of the higher prices and sent technicians to aid in bomb disposal.
As per a UN DESA report entitled “Progress of the Belt and Road Initiative and Sustainable Development Goals in Laos,” about 459 UXO bombs and 463,536 pieces of shrapnel over 2,931 hectares were cleared during the construction of the railway project between January 2017 and July 2019. These statistics are from China-Laos Railway Project Management Committee in 2019.
The report indicated that the Belt and Road cooperation could “make a substantial impact” as it led to the removal of a small part of the nearly 80 million remaining unexploded bombs. However, more funds and resources are required for this.
Both passenger and freight transport has flourished in the course of one month of operations for the China-Laos railway. China Railway Kunming Bureau Group claims that as of December 31, the China-Laos Railway has completed 380 freight train services with 150,000 tons of cargo in total.
The imports largely comprised iron ore, natural rubber, and chemical fertilizers, while the exports were mainly fruits, vegetables, and electromechanical products. Moreover, almost 580,000 passengers have been handled at the Chinese section of the railway.
A total of 22,000 passengers have traveled as of December 20, on the Lao section of the railway. Many Laotians buy tickets every day, to experience the changes that the railway brings to their life and work, communicating their support and love for the railway.
During the train ride, a reporter of the Vientiane Times witnessed that not even a drop was spilled when numerous passengers placed a paper cup almost full of water on the small table on the train. Saying “ka ka ka” (meaning very good in the Lao language) and taking videos of the cup from their mobile phones.
Bounleuth Luangpaseuth, Vice President of the Lao National Chamber of Commerce and Industry, recently stated that RCEP, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement is of tremendous significance for further boosting intra-region free trade, and the China-Laos railway will also play a greater role in this regard. He expressed his views in an exclusive interview with Xinhua News Agency of China.
The railway is a win-win project and unassailable, but the smear campaign of the West never stops. Even though it was the US that dropped 2 million tons of bombs in Laos and its China who built 1,035 km of railways, the US media still besmears China.
The US media claims that the China-Laos railway project has entangled Laos in a debt trap which will make it increasingly economically dependent on China, and ultimately politically connected with China as well.
A British analyst of politics and international relations, Tom Fowdy, however, highlighted the truth on the day the China-Laos railway started operations. He stated that the Western media is sending a peculiar message that “the country that bombed you is your friend while the one that built your new railway is your enemy.”
He further enunciated that this argument is insulting as well as insensitive to the contemporary history of Laos. It is evident to those who know Laos’ relatively recent past that China is not the threat, but the United States.
“It was the US that dropped cluster bombs on Laos. Consequently, in constructing the new railway, workers first had to remove the UXOs. How can the world and media remain indifferent to this atrocity? And how can they claim that China is the true threat to Laos, and that the US and its allies act in the true interests of the country?”
With the help of the China-built railway, the country will experience huge economic benefits even if the West keeps describing it as an “evil and sinister railway,” presumably forgetting that the US dropped hundreds of millions of bombs. The British analyst underscored that the China-Laos railway is an apt example of how the media can contort the reality just to reinforce an incriminating narrative.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian responded to a query at the regular press conference in this regard on Dec 21, 2021. He expressed that the China-Laos railway is the epitome of mutually-beneficial cooperation between two countries along with being the true representation of the Belt and Road cooperation. He further highlighted that, since it started operations, tangible progress can be seen.
Prime Minister Phankham Viphavanh of Laos, condemned the slander targeting the bilateral project, in an interview. He dismissed the allegations that the railway project is a debt trap for the country. Furthermore, he emphasized that such claims are mere vilification against the partnership.
The railway project meets the developmental needs of the Lao people along with delivering greater benefits by boosting personnel and trade exchange. Zhao Lijian quoted the Lao Prime Minister and stated that the China-Laos railway meets the development needs of Laos.
A Chinese saying goes, “good wine with an enticing aroma may still be known even hidden deep in an alley” – Zhao Lijian
He pointed out that Loas has immense natural resources as well as the tremendous potential for development. The main obstacle to the country’s development was inconvenient transportation with the outside world due to its geographical location as a landlocked country. This issue nevertheless, will be somewhat resolved by the China-Laos Railway and help the country to exploit its potential.
*The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not necessarily represent the position of this magazine.