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FACT CHECK: 2023 news of unexploded ordnance in Laos misrepresented as recent discovery

Jonathan Meadley

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FACT CHECK: 2023 news of unexploded ordnance in Laos misrepresented as recent discovery
Lao authorities say that the report about cluster munitions found near a rural farm in Khammouane Province, southern Laos, is outdated news disseminated by an unregistered media outlet

Claim: A set of cluster munitions was reportedly found near a rural farm in Laos’ Ka Sae Village, Xaibuathong District, Khammouane Province as villagers were farming. 

Rating: FALSE

Why we fact-checked this: Social media posts bearing the claim quickly went viral, with one video posted by unregistered media outlet Tholakhong garnering over 240,000 views online. 

The supposed report claimed that unexploded ordnance (UXO) was found near a rural farm in southern Laos on March 15.

The facts: An individual working for the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) of Laos’ UXO clearance department, who declined to be named, personally told Tholakhong that the supposed report was outdated. According to the individual, the cluster munitions were indeed discovered, but not recently. They were found In November 2023 and promptly detonated, contrary to the claim.

The misleading post appears to have been published to capitalize on the trending topic of UXO news in Laos at the time. Only a few days earlier, on March 11, another video surfaced on social media showing construction workers in Attapeu Province in the south of Laos digging cluster munitions out of the ground by hand and tossing them around. This video also went viral on social media, garnering over 290,000 views on Facebook.

MAG said it will soon release a statement regarding the post. 

History of bombing in Laos: Between 1964 and 1973, the US dropped 270 million cluster bombs on Laos, equivalent to a planeload of bombs every eight minutes for nine years, as part of the American Secret War to destroy communist supply lines. Since the bombing ended, over 25,000 people have been killed or injured by UXOs. An estimated 80 million bombs failed to detonate, and to date, less than 10% of these unexploded munitions have been destroyed.

The extent of cluster bomb contamination in Laos is unclear. However, current data indicate that approximately 1,800 square kilometers of land, roughly half the size of the Lao capital Vientiane, still requires UXO clearance.

Unexploded ordnance remains a threat to communities across Laos. As recently as January 18, 2024, five people in the Phouvong district of Attapeu Province were seriously injured after an explosion attributed to UXOs occurred while they were cooking.

Lao media landscape: Amid government restrictions on official media and prohibition on private media ownership, more people are turning to social networks for news. However, the ease of creating supposed media pages on platforms like Facebook has paved the way for the dissemination of disinformation. In 2021, authorities created a government task force to police social media use, prompting concerns from rights groups over censorship and digital dictatorship in Laos. – Rappler.com

Jonathan Meadley is a #FactsMatter Journalism Fellow for 2023-2024

Keep us aware of suspicious Facebook pages, groups, accounts, websites, articles, or photos in your network by contacting us at factcheck@rappler.com. You may also report dubious claims to the #FactsFirstPH tipline by messaging Rappler on Facebook or Newsbreak via Twitter direct message. You may also report through our Viber fact check chatbot. Let us battle disinformation one Fact Check at a time.

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