Reportage

Life of Fred Branfman

The man who exposed the truth behind the bombing of Laos…

The name, Fred Branfman may not be a household one. An inconspicuous name for a man who was anything but.

In 1967 Branfman travelled to Laos to work as an educational advisor and for the next two years he visited numerous refugee camps, schools and villages, helping the locals wherever he could. By 1969 the war in neighbouring Vietnam was at its peak and it was whilst Branfman was in the Lao capitol, Vientiane that he discovered one of America’s most bloody secrets.

Talking to refugees in one of the many temples in Vientiane, Branfman heard stories of persistent bombing by American aircraft despite his country’s insistence to the contrary. But it didn’t stop there. Branfman went on to discover that it had been an on-going campaign for more than five years, resulting in the deaths of thousands. The figures for the bombing campaign defy belief, from 1964 some 2.5 million tonnes of ordnance were dropped on the country and to this day the unexploded bombs are killing the innocents. Unsurprisingly, the witness accounts he listened to changed his life and in 1971 he revealed his findings to a Senate sub-committee on refugees in the US capitol. At the Edward Kennedy led hearing he said: “The Plain of Jars, what it’s a symbol of, is how those people on the vague frontiers, those people in the Third World, those people we never see, we never know about, we never hear, can be vaporised, wiped off the face of the earth without people back here even knowing about it.” 

Despite his whistle blowing the American administration continued its campaign in Laos, the essence of which was to cut off the supply route for the North Vietnamese and support the Royal Lao government. There can be few who would say the bombings were proportionate to the situation when an average of one tonne of explosives was dropped for every Lao person during that period. But the Americans persisted for another two years and took the fight across to Cambodia where Branfman, by now back in South East Asia, uncovered the secret campaign there.

By the  end of the war Branfmam had entered the political arena, working for the Democrats he acted as a researcher and campaigner before embarking on a seven-year journey of spiritual enlightenment across a number of religions and practices from Jerusalem to India. Despite his strongly held beliefs in Judaism he was a fierce opponent of Israeli foreign policy and a mark of a man entrenched in principle.

Whilst there are better known figures from that war, Branfman’s contribution should never be forgotten. He was a champion of democracy and open government, a sharp thorn in the side of Nixon and Kissinger and a friend of the innocents. Branfman died in 2014 whilst The Plain of Jars in Laos, of which he spoke so passionately remains one of the most dangerous archaeological sites in the world.

fred

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