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40 YEARS LATE: After spraying 20 million gallons of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, only now is the US addressing its damage
IN the tropical climate of central Vietnam, weeds and shrubs seem to grow everywhere -- except in Danang. Forty years after the United States stopped spraying herbicides in the jungles of Southeast Asia in the hopes of denying cover to Vietcong fighters and North Vietnamese troops, an air base in Danang is one of about two dozen former American sites that remain polluted with an especially toxic strain of dioxin, the chemical contaminant in Agent Orange that has been linked to cancers, birth defects and other diseases.
Last Thursday, after years of rebuffing Vietnamese requests for assistance in a clean-up, the US inaugurated its first major effort to address the environmental effects of the long war.
"This morning we celebrate a milestone in our bilateral relationship," David B. Shear, the US ambassador to Vietnam, said at a ceremony attended by senior officers of the Vietnamese military. "We're cleaning up this mess."
The programme, which will cost US$43 million (RM134 million) and take four years, was officially welcomed with smiles and handshakes at the ceremony. But bitterness remains. Agent Orange is mentioned often in the news media and is commemorated annually on Aug 10, the day in 1961 when it was first tested in Vietnam. The government objected to Olympic sponsorship this year by Dow Chemical, a leading producer of Agent Orange during the war. Many in Vietnam have not hesitated to call the US programme too little -- it addresses only the one site -- and very late.
"It's a big step," said Ngo Quang Xuan, a former Vietnamese ambassador to the United Nations.
"But in the eyes of those who suffered the consequences, it's not enough."
Over a decade of war, the US sprayed about 20 million gallons of Agent Orange and other herbicides in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, halting only after scientists commissioned by the Agriculture Department issued a report expressing concerns that dioxin showed "a significant potential to increase birth defects". By the time the spraying stopped, Agent Orange and other herbicides had destroyed two million hectares of forest and cropland, an area roughly the size of New Jersey.
Nguyen Van Rinh, a retired lieutenant general who is now chairman of the Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin, has vivid memories of hearing US aircraft above the jungles of southern Vietnam and seeing Agent Orange raining down in sheets on him and his troops. Plants and animals exposed to the defoliant were dead within days. Many of his troops later suffered illnesses that he suspects were linked to the repeated exposure to Agent Orange, used in concentrations 20 to 55 times that of normal agricultural use.
"I would like to have one message sent to the American people," Nguyen Van said in his office, where a large bust of Ho Chi Minh, the wartime leader and icon, stared down from a shelf behind his desk.
"The plight of Agent Orange victims continues. I think the relationship would rise up to new heights if the American government took responsibility and helped their victims and address the consequences."
Those who have worked on the issue say the US government has been slow to address the issue in part because of concerns about liability. It took years for US soldiers who sprayed the chemicals to secure settlements from the chemical companies that produced them. The US government, which also lagged in acknowledging the problem, has spent billions of dollars on disability payments and healthcare for US soldiers who came into contact with Agent Orange. Shear, the US ambassador, sidestepped a reporter's question after the ceremony about whether the US would take responsibility for the environmental and health effects of Agent Orange.
"There is a disconnect between what America has done for its soldiers and what America has done for Vietnam," said Charles Bailey, the director of the Agent Orange in Vietnam Programme, an effort by the Aspen Institute, a non-governmental organisation based in Washington, to reach common ground between the US and Vietnam on the issue.
"I'm sometimes glad I'm not a US diplomat in trying to square that circle."
A class-action case against chemical companies filed in the US on behalf of millions of Vietnamese was dismissed in 2005 on the grounds that supplying the defoliant did not amount to a war crime and that the Vietnamese plaintiffs had not established a clear causal effect between exposure to Agent Orange and their health problems. The US government is rolling out a modest US$11.4 million (RM36 million) programme to help people with disabilities in Vietnam, but it is not explicitly linked to Agent Orange. The oft-repeated US formulation is "assistance regardless of cause".
When environmental factors are linked to disease, proof positive is sometimes hard to determine. US military studies have outlined connections between Agent Orange and myriad ailments, while Dow Chemical maintains that the "very substantial body of human evidence on Agent Orange establishes that veterans' illnesses are not caused by Agent Orange".
Le Ke Son, a doctor and the most senior Vietnamese official responsible for the government's programmes related to Agent Orange and other chemicals used during the war, said the debates should take a back seat to aid.
"We spend a lot of time arguing about the reason why people are disabled," he said.
"One way or another they are victims and suffered from the legacy of the war. We should do something for them." NYT