United Nations, N.Y. — The nutritional situation in Cambodia has improved substantially since last fall, but it remains worrisome. Renewed and intensified relief efforts by international organizations are sorely needed, say United Nations officials and diplomats.
These well-informed sources assert, however, that such efforts are being undermined and hampered by the combined political activities of China, the United States, and the countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines). For instance, they say, the humanitarian conference that met this week in Geneva to deal with the problems of delivering food to Cambodia was politically motivated and even potentially damaging to UNICEF-Red Cross attempts to aid Cambodians inside Cambodia.
A gap much deeper than has been reported has widened since early last fall between the objectives of UNICEF-Red Cross on the one hand, and of the ASEAN countries, China, and the US, on the other. The latter tripartite alliance, according to its critics here, is firmly held together by US Ambassador to Thailand Morton Abramowitz. He is widely regarded here as a hawk whose diplomatic career included many years at the Pentagon.
The UN officials and diplomats who criticize the actions of the "tripartite alliance" describe the contrasting aims of the two sides in these terms:
Those of the international community (UNICEF-Red Cross):
1. The survival of the Cambodians.
2. Achievement of self-sufficiency by the Cambodians at the end of 1980.
3. A return flow of people at the border.
Those of the American Embassy in Bangkok and its backers:
1. Supporting politically and materially the Khmer Rouge and other Cambodian groups fighting against the Vietnamese- backed Heng Samrin regime.
2. Destabilizing Battambang Province near the Thai border.
3. Drawing people from inside Cambodia to the border area by holding out the prospect of food being available there.
4. Ultimately, hurting the Phnom Penh authorities and making life tough for the Vietnamese.
From the beginning, UNICEF and the Red Cross have considered their efforts to distribute food and medicine through Phnom Penh as essential, while their relief efforts through the Thai-Cambodian border were seen as marginal. According to high-ranking officials here, the two international bodies did not want to get involved in a policy aimed at attracting the Cambodian population to the border.
In fact, their objective was the opposite: to gradually entice the Cambodian refugees to leave Thai camps and return to Cambodian villages. Some 300,000 have returned to their homeland since last fall as a result of relief efforts, they say.
Meanwhile, UNICEF and the Red Cross have become more and more wary of the chaotic conditions along the Thai-Cambodian border and of unwittingly providing food to the Khmer Rouge through unscrupulous racketeers operating with the support of some local Thai officials. They have been concerned that by providing assistance to the rebels they would increase Vietnamese suspicions and not be able to fulfill their main obligation to the overwhelming majority of the Cambodians inside Cambodia.
Furthermore, backers of UNICEF-Red Cross say the organizations' efforts to help the Phnom Penh authorities help themselves in the long run (by providing them with means of transportation and with educational assistance) have been vehemently opposed by the "tripartite alliance in Bangkok."
Now that UNICEF-Red Cross and the Washington-Peking-Bangkok axis have clashed head on, UNICEF has decided to seriously reduce its relief efforts through the border. Instead it has decided to concentrate on its programs through Phnom Penh, through the port city of Kompong Song, and through Vung Tau on the Mekong River, which has now been opened to Western aid.
As a result, say UN officials, Thai authorities have begun to force thousands of Cambodian refugees from the camps of Ban None Samet and Ban None Makmoon across the border back into their country.
"What the Thais and their friends are really telling us is: If you will not allow us to divert part of your food supplies to the Khmer Rouge, then we will not allow you to feed the Cambodian refugees in our camps," says a high-ranking UN official.
The same officials, as well as some Western diplomats, claim that the Heng Samrin authorities and the Vietnamese are fully cooperating with the international community in its relief efforts.
"The failure of the Phnom Penh authorities to adequately distribute foodstuffs inside the country is not a product of political sabotage but a result of a dramatic lack of trained personnel, of infrastructure, of organizational skills, and when all is said, of the genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge against their own people," says one Western ambassador. "This situation is gradually being remedied," he adds.
UNICEF and the Red Cross recently successfully negotiated in Moscow, Phnom Penh, and Hanoi what will be the scope of their efforts throughout 1980. Of the 1 million tons of food needed this year in Cambodia, they were authorized to bring in 250,000 tons.
Ways to improve the use of existing trucks and the delivery of an additional 600 trucks was agreed on. Two areas from which shipment can be made to the eastern provinces of Cambodia were opened by Hanoi.