Master of Arts in Sustainable International Development

On the front lines of bomb clearance efforts in Laos

By Courtney Lombardo

Arina Lester

Arina Chithavong Lester, MA SID’15, Feldman Foundation Endowed Fellow, landed her dream job working as the director of development and operations at Legacies of War, a Washington, DC-based organization, “which advocates for the removal of unexploded bomb leftovers from the Vietnam War era in Laos.” In this new role Chithavong Lester, who is of Lao heritage, conducts training, victim assistance, bomb clearance and advocacy for communities in Laos. Her new position coincides with an important and historic time between the United States and the South Asian country.

On Sept. 6, President Obama, the first sitting president in U.S. history to visit Laos, acknowledged the history of the “Secret War” in which the U.S. dropped more than two million tons of bombs in Laos from 1964 to 1973. Today, 80 million unexploded Vietnam-era bombs remain, a problem that has severely restricted agricultural development. During his visit, President Obama announced that the U.S. would increase aid to Laos by $90 million over the next three years to find and remove the explosives. This increase in aid is nearly equivalent to the amount the U.S. has spent over the last 20 years in Laos. Chithavong Lester adds, “During the ‘Secret War’ the U.S. spent more than $14 million per day over a period of nine years to bomb this country.”

She continues, “My parents were refugees and prisoners of war. As a teenager, my father spent three years in a concentration/reeducation camp, left his family and became a refugee at age 17 by paying a Thai fisherman to take him over the Mekong River. My mother still remembers the feeling of small stones in her mouth from the poorly cleaned rations of rice provided at the United Nations refugee camp in Thailand where she lived for three years. This historic event is not just significant for the 7 million people still living in Laos, but also for us, the Lao diaspora community, as we share the same history.”

Arina Lester working in the field