January 10, 2007

Chemical Burns

Chemical burns: 30 years after the fall of Saigon, Vietnam's war goes on
An estimated four million Vietnamese still suffer from Agent Orange exposure.
By Chris Arsenault

Ho Chi Minh City- The Vietnam war officially ended in 1975, when the Americans fled by helicopter from their embassy in Saigon. But for an estimated four million Vietnamese suffering from Agent Orange exposure, the war continues.

The Americans drenched the country with an estimated 72 million litres of Agent Orange, a deadly defoliant that burns the leaves off trees, causes birth defects in children and stays in the soil and water for generations.

Dioxin, or TCDD, an active ingredient in Agent Orange, is one of the most deadly chemicals known to man.

"I met one family of victims with four blinded children, no eyes- period," said Dr. Nguyen Thi Ngoc Phuong during a December conference in Ho Chi Minh City for activists and Agent Orange survivors, attended by 200 people from around the world.

"We don't have an estimate of how much money is needed for the clean-up work," said Le Duc, manager of the Ho Chi Minh City Agent Orange association, but the amount is certainly in the billions. The U.S. congress has passed legislation in favour of cleaning up America's mess, but thus far, money hasn't been put on the table.

Along with providing support and job training for Agent Orange victims, Duc's association is fighting court battles in the U.S. against the companies, most notably, Monsanto and Dow Chemical, who manufactured the poison.

According to articles in the Vietnamese press, Monsanto and Dow conducted internal tests on the chemicals in 1947, which found they were dangerous to humans. The companies, according to articles, suppressed the results and the American government didn't bother to ask questions.

Remarkably, Monsanto still denies that Agent Orange causes long-term health problems.

In 2004, Vietnam Veterans of Agent Orange (VAVA) launched a lawsuit in U.S. courts against 37 corporations that manufactured and sold the herbicides. It was thrown out on March 10, 2005; Judge Jack Weinstein ruled the claims lacked a basis in national and international law.

Many of the corporate defendants - including Dow Chemical Company, Hercules Chemical Company and Monsanto Company - lost a 1984 lawsuit to American spraying victims and were forced to pay $180 million into a fund for 52,000 sick veterans and their families.

In reprehensibly racist logic, the chemical is poisonous for Americans, but fine for Vietnamese. VAVA is appealing the 2004 decision.

"If we lose the court appeal, I don't know what our next move will be," said Le Duc. "But we will continue fighting until we win."

The 'fight to win' policy has a long history among Vietnam's resilient people. Though the Viet Cong and their leader Ho Chi Minh won the war, the dream of an egalitarian society has been indefinitely deferred since the communist party announced the policy of Doi Moi (the opening) in the late 1980s.

In the city that bears Ho Chi Minh's name, the Heinekens, hotels and hookers tell a story of rising capitalism (Vietnam GDP growth was above seven per cent last year) not classless communism.

This is where the history of U.S. interventionism comes full circle. Saigon, now called Ho Chi Minh City, was a beautiful, messy, debaucherous circus before the war and has returned to that today. Afghanistan was a bastion of fundamentalism before the invasion and will fully revert to it once the foreigners tire of their crusade.

But like Israel's unexploded cluster bombs which continue the war in southern Lebanon, the suffering of Vietnam's blind children, legless teenagers and balding women with eczema so bad their skin literally rots in the concrete heat, continues with no end in sight. Nothing was gained for anyone by this tragedy, but much was lost.

"The world can't just turn a blind eye to this suffering," said Len Aldis, chairman of the United Kingdom Agent Orange Association. But many eyes have been blinded, literally and figuratively.

The side with less resources and infinitively more heart, determination and courage won the official fighting in the Vietnam of 1975. With our help, the same people might win today's battle against Agent Orange, but for now - the war goes on.

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