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China-Laos railway thrives despite US' deadly legacy

Updated:2022-01-07 13:07:21   China Daily

A student from the China-Laos Friendship Nongping Primary School is seen on the Lane Xang EMU train of the China-Laos railway on Dec 3, 2021. [Photo/Xinhua]

US military operations in Laos, despite ending nearly 50 years ago, have left behind a legacy of destruction that still endangers lives today.

The China-Laos railway opened to traffic in December last year. Though the completion of the more than 1,000-kilometer Belt and Road project was difficult, one underreported aspect of the work is the unexploded ordnance workers had to be wary of, thanks to bombings of Laotian land by the US military decades ago.

About 459 UXO bombs and 463,536 pieces of shrapnel over 2,931 hectares of land had been cleared in Laos during the construction of the China-Laos railway between January 2017 and July 2019, according to a report by United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs released in September 2019.

And this is only a small part of an estimated 80 million bombs that remain unexploded across the Southeast Asian country.

During the Vietnam War, the US carpet-bombed neighboring Laos to block Vietnam's supply lines on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in the south of Laos. That operation was called the Secret War, and was led by the CIA, according to a CBS news piece from 2016.

Laos is, per capita, the most heavily bombed country in the world. On average, bombs were dropped every eight minutes over nine years between 1964 and 1973. More than 20,000 people have been killed or maimed by the unexploded bombs since the war ended, and currently 50 are maimed or killed every year. Around 40 percent of these are children.

Even on Dec 3, 2021, the day when China-Laos railway began service, Vientiane Times reported three men working as part of a survey team with UXO Lao were killed instantly when searching for unexploded ordnance on a coffee plantation in Champassak province. UXO Lao is the Lao National Unexploded Ordnance Program, established by the Lao government with the support of UNICEF.

In December 2016, construction of the China-Laos railway in Luang Namtha province had yet to commence as some UXO clearance need to be completed before rail builders could go full steam ahead. The section in question where some UXO may remain is 16.9 kilometers long, per the Vientiane Times.

An electric multiple unit (EMU) train of the China-Laos railway crosses a major bridge over the Yuanjiang River in Southwest China's Yunnan province, Dec 3, 2021. [Photo/Xinhua]

Six soldier units were reportedly assigned by the Laotian Ministry of National Defense to clear unexploded ordnance along the route earmarked for the railway, working from January to May in 2017, before track construction began. China also redesigned its building scheme to suit the clearance work and allocated demining technicians to help with site work, according to the official website of the Belt and Road.

"To dig on a no man's land is nothing compared to the fear of those unexploded bombs in the jungles, under great pressure," Liu Qianli is cited as saying on the official website of PowerChina. Liu is an engineering head for the China-Laos railway from a Sinohydro unit of Beijing-based PowerChina, a State-owned enterprise. He started his work for the railway at Luang Prabang, a mountainous region in northern Laos, in October 2016.

Li Bin had similar experiences. "You can never imagine the scenario the first day I got here. The county chief with militiaman demining led the way, and local people chopped trees," Li said. He and his workers had to inch forward on foot since no machinery could get in, Li added in a feature report by China Central Television.

Li, commander-in-chief of the railway project, has 35 years of engineering experience and he worked with the railway line in Laos for four years. As he sees it, the unexploded bombs in the jungles he worked at in Laos couldn't be cleared even in a hundred years.

The construction work is tough not only because of bomb clearance, but also for its massive network of tunnels and bridges.

The rail extends through China's southwestern Yunnan province, which connects the world's highest plateau with the eastern plain. There are 167 tunnels and 301 bridges along the 1,035-km railway. The length of the tunnels comes in at over 590 km, accounting for 63 percent of the railway's total. The bridge and tunnel ratio is also quite high, in the Chinese section up to 87 percent and the Laotian section up to 63 percent.

"I have found the Chinese engineers are so wonderful. Confronting the complex terrain in the mountain plateaus, they can always use advanced technology to drill through every tunnel," Thonglien Outhayod, a Laotian employee at the China Railway No 2 Engineering Group Vientiane base, told Xinhua in October 2021.

This week marks one month of operations for the China-Laos railway, connecting Kunming in China's Yunnan province with the Laotian capital Vientiane. The latest data show the line handled about 670,000 passengers and 170,000 metric tons of cargo within its first month.

A total of 620,000 passengers traveled on the Chinese section in one month, according to China State Railway Group Co, Ltd, the Chinese railway operator. The section in Laos also saw robust travel demand, especially during the weekends and holidays, with a total of 50,000 passenger trips made since its launch.

The China-Laos Railway helps to build a new logistics passage between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, cutting the travel time for freight trains linking Kunming and Vientiane to only 30 hours when running at the fastest speed.

A World Bank report shows the railway could potentially increase aggregate income in Laos by up to 21 percent over the long term.

Keywords:   China-Laos railway thrives