A Conversation with Legacies of War

SEAD's Kaysone Syonesa Schneider sits down with Legacies of War's Aleena Inthaly (Chief of Staff) & Danae Hendrickson (Chief of Mission Advancement & Communications) to discuss the Legacies of War Tour and commemorate American Secret War on Laos and its major relevance today.

The Legacies of War Tour will be touching down in Minnesota! Sign up for their upcoming Southeast Asia Diaspora Weekend, August 11-13. This free series of community events are in partnership with The SEAD Project, East Side Freedom Library, Theater Mu, Mines Advisory Group, and Teada Productions.


Q1: Tell us about the history of Legacies of War. When and how did the project emerge?

ALEENA: Legacies of War [was] started in 2004 by our fearless founder, Channapha Khamvongsa, who grew up in Laos. She was a refugee, left with her family as a child to Thailand. She was only 8 when she landed in Virginia. Her background really shaped her motivation to look into her family's history, to figure out what happened. Why did her family leave? Then she came across a collection of illustrations that we call “The Originals”.

She met the director of the Institute for Policy Studies, Mr. John Cavanagh, who's a very close friend of Legacies of War and who we call “The Godfather” of Legacies of War. John asked, “Are you Lao?” And she was like, “Yeah, I'm Lao”. Then he said, “Well, I have something I want to show you.” 

John had these illustrations that were collected by Fred Branfman, an American activist and educator who was in Laos in the 60s and 70s. John, Fred, and a Lao colleague collected [these] drawings, [which were] first-hand accounts [and depictions] from refugees. People who were bullied and displaced from their homes in Vientiane, and they are very descriptive. And this was like the first time ever that Lao people were sharing what happened to them. [Many] years later, John gave them to Channapha and said, “This is your community’s archival collection and you should take this.” 

She wanted to share them with as many people as she could. That's when Legacies of War started. Channapha traveled across the US, telling communities about the American Secret War, sharing “The Originals” with the world through a traveling exhibit. From there, Legacies of War trailblazed the conversation about the US’s moral responsibility and obligation to funding the clearance and demining of unexploded ordnance in Laos, raise more awareness about the history, and put it into American curriculum, in history books.

And now we are 19 years old. We are the only internationally facing US-based advocacy and educational organization that educates the public about the American Secret War from 1964 to 1973.

We raise awareness and advocate for US funding, specifically going towards humanitarian demining of unexploded ordnance, landmines, as well as providing victims assistance, support, [and] education for Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. But we are also collectively working to take a stand against consolation ammunition use around the world. We focus on the 3 countries of Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia because of our communities and who we represent. Our organization is made of 3 full-time staff members, all Lao American. We're led now by our amazing CEO, Sera Koulabdara, who herself was born in Laos and fled as a child when she was only 7. She is 1.5 generation and is the first millennial Lao American woman to ever lead the US Campaign to Ban Landmines and Cluster Munitions Coalition. Which is a huge opportunity, I think, for the organization to really take a stance on this issue but also share with the world what we've learned from our work with Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and how that can impact many others who face the same fate around the world. 

And here we are. We're now based in Washington DC, we meet with congressional members [...] I think part of the sticky rice of our work is that we are mobilizing grassroots communities across the US to talk about this, to open up conversations and dialogues with unlikely allies, communities that have all faced this impact of war, including the veteran community, who may or may not have been directly involved or even impacted in their own way by these types of weapons. And we have brought together diaspora communities that come from Laos, the Hmong community, Lao community, Vientiane community, and Khmu community—a variety of different people who have faced different experiences and in a lot of ways.

We have a holistic approach—not just talking about the history, not just about education, but utilizing art, fashion, cultural preservation, and heritage to really uplift our stories and transform something that used to be so painful and traumatic into something that's transformative and healing. So by sharing our stories, we’re also healing. But that's sort of the long gist of it all. I will, yeah, pass the mic over to Danae to share a little bit more.

DANAE: Yeah, I think you've covered everything that I would want [to], Aleena. What I would just reiterate is that Legacies of War, the creation of it and [its] existence, really gives a place to find identity as a Lao American, as a Hmong American. What it means to be an American and diaspora from Southeast Asia through learning about our own history, and then finding collective healing. So I think that that's, you know, the impetus of trying to learn about this history, creating community. Sera, Aleena, myself—all learning about this history as adults, and coming together to show the world who we are and establish this history as American history, and I think it’s a really beautiful community that Legacies of War has continued to evolve and grow over the years.

Q2: Tell us about the Legacies of War Tour. What has been the highlight of this tour so far?

DANAE: So the tour started really as a way to commemorate the 50th year, since the last bombs were dropped on Laos. 2023 marks 50 years since the last bombs were dropped. And also, the 50th year of the signing of the Paris Peace Accords, which officially ended the Vietnam War and I think also 50 years since the last bombs on Cambodia as well. So it's a really important year for many diasporas from Southeast Asia. We wanted to find a way to commemorate [that], and I think coming out of the pandemic, it felt like a really timely way to re-engage with community around the US in person and continue to cultivate this community that we've grown. So we have almost 20 stops all around the US and Laos, and we've collectively done each tour with some board members. It's board-member-led in some areas. 

Berkeley was the first stop, [then] Portland, and then back to the East Coast, DC. We were in New York for April 4th which is International Mine Awareness Day, and it's looked a little different at every stop depending on the community. It's been really community-led. We ask folks to really take ownership of what it means for them in their communities. And, we offer to come and talk about the history and ways for the community to be engaged as constituents. I think that that's a really beautiful thing that Legacies has done for me especially, and something we continue to do is to really demystify [being] engaged as a constituent, especially around the issue of global demining. That's a big part of our tour, [talking] about the history, [our] educational programs, and then offer ways [to] get involved in advocacy.

So yeah, our stop is coming up in Minnesota—in St. Paul and Minneapolis—and it's been, I think, over 10 years since we've been there on our last tour. So It's due time to make a stop in Minnesota, and we're so excited because there's such a rich community there, and we're just so thrilled to meet with the community leaders and members and really just spend time [there]. I'm really excited about the events, too. We have 3 events coming up!!

But yeah, our CEO Sera is in Laos starting at the end of this week. I think. And so she's gonna be in Laos during the actual date of the last bomb that was dropped. So we're really excited for her to be there and to speak with demining partners and UXO victims and our partners on the ground as they commemorate this special date in Laos. And in conjunction, we're doing our annual grassroots campaign.

And Aleena, that starts on which date?

ALEENA: The 21st.

DANAE: So it starts on the 21st and it's a week-long campaign. We do this every year with our partners, the Halo Trust USA, and Mines Advisory Group America. Also, Apopo and Peace Trees Vietnam are partnering with us on this. It's a digital letter-writing campaign and it's really just a way to fill the inboxes of Congress with our recurring ask for increased funding for UXO demining in Southeast Asia—Laos, Cambodian Vietnam—and other items as well, like joining the UXO Demining Caucus, supporting the Legacies of War Bill. We're really excited to have that campaign running in conjunction with this special date of the last bomb dropped.

So yeah, I think the tour, it's been a really big success. We've made a lot of new friends, and heard stories that we hadn't heard before and re-engaged with community leaders that we haven't spent time with in so many years.

ALEENA: Yeah, I would also add to that the Minnesota community and all the stops that we’ve actually included are really sort of the foundation of how Legacies of War even started. It's really our chance to kind of give back flowers to the community for all the work they've done. Legacies of War would not be what it is today without the support of all of our community members and all of our community partners—and SEAD, of course, has been partnering with Legacies for decades.

The founder Chanida, right, with Channapha. They did traveling exhibits together. They were a part of the steering committee together, so I think it's a lot in a way—we're kind of shedding a light on our things from the past, but now are looking forward to what we can do together. And I know the next question is about how we've seen Legacies of War work change and it goes perfectly into it because we expanded our scope.

ALEENA: Before, we're so focused just specifically on Laos, but we know now how interconnected the Laos story is to so many other countries that face the same issues of demining UXO contamination, so that's why we're more inclusive of other parts of Southeast Asia and working with communities we might not have before. Also, doing research to include Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia. So that's the exciting part, there's a lot that we haven't done before that we're doing now.

Q3: Do you feel the work has shifted compared to 10 years ago when it was the 40th Anniversary? Any new insights or challenges since?

ALEENA: I guess I’ll start by saying that now that we have expanded our work and included even more asks in our advocacy for Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia. We now want to advocate for a bigger pot of funding together, 80 million dollars for all 3 countries, 45% of that going to Laos each year, which is the highest amount of funding ever in history. President Obama in 2016 was really a benchmark for a big increase of funding for what used to be 15 million a year, to now-30 or was-30 million in 2016, to now 45 million. So we are really proud of the progress that we're making. And that amount of funding is…you can't even compare it to how much the US spent a day bombing Laos, which was estimated [to be] about 17 million—from our research in today's dollars—17 million dollars a day for 9 years. Can't even calculate that amount. But I think what our challenges now are really kind of going up against a larger system. We're working against a system of violence, a system of militarization that kind of upholds itself. And so, in our very unique role, we really don't want people to forget about Laos. We don't want people to forget about Southeast Asia, and we will do everything we can, in every space and every platform that we can, to talk about Laos. To talk about our history. But it's been a challenge because we get shut out of these spaces. Just 3 Southeast Asian women going up to Congress saying, “Stop this.” They don't listen. [That's] when we have to think about how [to] build up a movement. So that's why working with the US Campaign to Ban Landmines has been life-changing, I think, for our organization, but also in our strategy and opening up doors working with international partners who are established in these spaces, right? People who are from all around the world who are experts in their fields, we're trying harder to collaborate than before. 

Before, we were kind of working in our different corners. But now, with MAG and Halo, we get more and more involved and we're working together more on collaborative efforts, but it’s still, I think, not enough. It's still a work in progress. Yeah, I would say that it's tough every day when you're constantly talking about, “How can we remove these bombs?” And, “The US has to take accountability,” when there is a system that's working against us. And we just recently heard about the Biden administration making a decision to send cluster munitions to Ukraine, and that has fueled our work even more because now, we need the world to know how dangerous these bombs are. Not just in Southeast Asia–50 years later we're still cleaning them up–but what can happen in the future if we continue [down] this path. But here we are, we're still fighting. And I think our work is more invaluable. I mean, it's more relevant now than ever. [Danae], what are your thoughts?

DANAE: Yeah, I would say that a really incredible foundation has been laid right with Channapha, and she traveled so much and really did a lot of community work, and that is the only reason why we're here today. I think when the leadership transition happened when Sera took over, she really ran with it and she is pulling up chairs, sitting at tables that she's not invited to, however the saying goes.

She is making space for herself as a Lao American woman to continue to bring this issue into the conversation and not let it be forgotten. And I think the really devastating part that we know is so true is that if we aren't here, if we don't exist, it will be forgotten. So it feels really urgent to continue to preserve this history through our educational programming, incorporating it into curriculum, things like that. I think our biggest challenge is and has been to ask, “How do we continue to grow? How do we continue to make people [aware] of this issue and [spark] interest? [Who's] gonna care about Laos, and bombs in Laos, and bombs in Cambodia, and bombs in Vietnam…how do we make an area of interest for Americans? And also for Diaspora from Southeast Asia?” I think that there's a lot of healing that hasn't really happened. And we're here now and we have our issues and our challenges that we face here in America, and why do we need to worry and invest in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, and I think a path that we've chosen to take with that conversation is…this is a humanitarian issue. This is not just an issue for Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. It's impacted over 30 countries in the world and it's a part of American history, so that's the way that we're leading the conversation.

And I think Sera, our CEO…I think her role as chair of the Cluster Munition Coalition in the US—she's in different working groups like the Environment in Mine Action, Conventional Weapons Destruction Network, War Legacies Working Group, which focus globally on this issue not just in Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam. So that will always be our focus I think, Southeast Asia, but we really are behind the scenes like a leader globally advocating for this issue and bringing more awareness to it. I think it's such a strange thing to have war fuel the conversation again. It's really, I think, created opportunity in a way of I think just kind of like–I don't know If this is appropriate to say…so like when Donald Trump was elected, it brought a lot of light to areas of opportunity that we need to work on and highlighted things that we need to continue to advocate for, and I think like that Biden administration sending cluster munition to Ukraine, has really brought the conversation forward to, “What are cluster munitions?”. Now the American public is more educated on this type of weapon, whereas they weren’t before. And so, we've been able to talk about cluster munitions in a really relevant and urgent way and talk about Laos again as, unfortunately, it is the most contaminated with cluster munitions in the world. And so it is the most relevant topic right now in that conversation. And so we've been able to continue to talk about Laos.

I think that highlights the question of how our work has evolved, and also what's urgent right now. It’s talking about the ban on custom munitions…and also its impact globally and not just in Laos, Cambodia  and Vietnam.

Q4: You've been doing this work for many years now, and there is still a sense of urgency to the work. How can the community take action individually or as a community to help carry this work forward?

ALEENA: This is the fun part, how can you help? Well, one, we just talked a little bit about it, but we do the grassroots campaign every year, we engage with constituents to reach out to the congressional offices and write letters in support of global demining. That's one way—really easy way, we try to set it up as easy as possible. It's a link that populates a letter. All you have to do is add in your zip code, your name, and it populates all the information—who your representative is, the letter itself [...]. But I would also say even with that, we want to invite people to join us on these calls to go with us to the Hill to meet with their representatives face to face and ask them to support, and there are ways to do that. One of the things that we do specifically is we've recruited congressional members with the UXO Demining Caucus, which is a caucus that briefs congressional members and their staff about unexploded ordnance and the dangers of it. Also, the existence of landmines and global demining that is funded by the US. Giving people the updates on what's happening on the ground, where’s US funding going towards, and how much progress has been made. And so far, we have 62 members and it’s bipartisan.

Danae actually has a really great example because she was able to get her representative to sign or join this caucus. Before, her representative (shout out to Rep. Rick Larsen) wasn't so involved with this issue, but after hearing from Danae, he was like, “Where do I sign up?” And a lot of our board members, and some of our closest supporters have also had the same kind of outcome, so we do want to continue to engage our communities that way. And we provide all the materials—we provide talking points and kind of walk through with our constituents how to talk to Congress, “What are some points that we can all touch together?” But it also comes from an authentic place. So we work with them on storytelling, too. How do you tell your story? How do you share your connection to this? That's been really helpful.

We also work on legislation. There is a Legacies of War Recognition and UXO Removal Act that was reintroduced in the House by Rep. Ami Bera from California, and to get that bill even drafted and supported, we had to seek out endorsements from the community. So we had The SEAD Project sign on, LANA, Laos Heritage Foundation, many organizations across the country. We ended up getting over a hundred and twenty one endorsee organizations and individuals, and that really helped propel that legislation. So, there are so many factors into our advocacy, or so many layers to the advocacy work that we do, but it really comes from all the community members that we're meeting on our tour, that we're engaging with through our social media, through our online efforts. And all this information is available on our website as well. But aside from advocacy, our next arm of work is really our educational programming, and I think Danae can really touch on what that is.

DANAE: Yeah, I was just thinking that that would complement what you said really well because you highlighted a lot of the advocacy parts. And I think in conjunction with that, it's storytelling, it's our education, learning about their history. So we have our legacies library, which is our online list of books, articles, and films about the history of the American Secret War in Laos and other US involvement in Southeast Asia.

You can go to our website, find Legacies Library, and find credible sources to learn about this history. It's vetted by our board of directors, which is made up of veterans, diaspora, government officials, and we have advisors. So it's a really solid list to learn from. And our work has been bringing this list to universities and schools to say, “Hey, this is a free resource for you guys to learn from and use to learn about this history”. And so it's an ever-growing list, but there's about a dozen or so of each books, articles, and films currently, and children's books as well. And then it links to either watch or read that piece or purchase on a different site.

And we also have our Thip Khao Talk podcast which Aleena produces and created. It stemmed from our hour-long Facebook, lunchtime conversations that they used to be and now have transitioned to podcasts because that's what everyone's doing and that's what's effective. But it's really beautiful. My favorite episode is where she interviews her mom, and her mom shares parts of her own story that she's never shared with Aleena before, and it's really amazing. It came out almost on Mother's Day. And yeah, it's a really beautiful conversation. And so there's short interviews or highlights with community partners, people that we work with, people on our board, people in the community, just really meant to continue to help people engage and find healing and learn about their own history.

And then we have Khao Niew’s classroom, which was created by our Senior Executive Intern Anna, and it's the cutest little sticky rice basket and it's like animated—it’s a little character. And Anna has actually created a whole family. Khao Niew is his name, and she's created a whole family and they all have a backstory. She's working on a book. It's absolutely incredible.

ALEENA: (Aleena shows us a sticker of a cute anthropomorphic Lao sticky rice basket) This one's writing to Congress, this one. Yeah (laughs). We're going to bring these to Minnesota as well so everybody can have them.

DANAE: It's our favorite thing to bring because it immediately just breaks down the walls. One of my favorite parts of our recent trip to Laos–we were meeting with the US Embassy, and we just pushed the stickers across the table and everyone's faces just melted and it's just a great diplomacy tool. But it's meant to educate youth, [we] really focus on simplifying our work. You know, what are UXO, what is the history of the Secret War? And we're working on slideshow presentations for grades K-6 [and] 6-12, that help to simplify and focus on, “How can you connect to this history? And what are ways that they can get involved in their classrooms?” And so we've started a Khao Niew’s Club. Right now it's just with the Vientiane International School in Vientiane, Laos. And one of our board members is actually the instructor there in that classroom, so our goal is to help…It's for those students in Laos to help us to create lessons and content by learning in real time about this history and really empowering them to show them how simple it is to learn and get involved.

Yeah, it's a really amazing program. If you can't tell, I'm really excited about it. Yeah, so those are our educational programs, and then other ways that people can get involved is by sharing their story. We have a really incredible newsletter. We send out 2+ a month and we highlight stories in each one. I love hearing people's stories. It's my favorite part of my job is when someone becomes a donor or sends us an email and asking them, “Hey, let's jump on the phone. I want to hear all about you and where you came from”. It's really healing, I think, on both ends. Whether you are a part of the Southeast Asian diaspora or not, maybe your father/mother was a veteran. Maybe you just learned about this history as an adult but have no ties to Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam. I think your story is still very relevant and powerful. Because there's someone out there like you and someone needs to hear your story. So that's another way that you can engage and support.