Singapore — The conviction is growing among relief agencies that Cambodia's food emergency is nearing an end. Ironically, this "good news" is fueling a conflict between the international relief agencies and Thai officials. Though whether it is as serious it now appears to be remains to be seen.
At the heart of the dispute is an oxcart "land bridge" that relief groups have used to carry food and other emergency supplies from Thailand overland into Cambodia.
With the relief agencies reporting that Cambodia is likely to reap a relatively good rice harvest in the next few months, the prospect is for a decline in the international aid going over the "land bridge."
Some form of aid will still be necessary. Preliminary conclusions of a United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) study team just back from Cambodia are that there will be a continuing food shortage next year. But the situation will no longer be an "emergency" and reports are circulating that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) will cut off land-bridge food aid at the end of this month, and that UNICEF will do the same by next March.
Some Thai officials are none too happy about that. They are convinced that the international organizations prefer to work with the Vietnamese-dominated Heng Samrin government and to send aid directly to Phnom Penh. This, they believe, strengthens their enemy and props up a government not even recognized by the United Nations.
At the same time, they welcome the agencies handling out food to people inside Cambodia by oxcart. This is because a certain amount of the food reaches anti-Vietnamese groups. And much of it is bought in Thailand, which helps boost the country's economy.
For these reasons, some Thai officials prefer to see aid administered "land-bridge style" at two distribution points along the Thai-Cambodian border.
Now, in response to reports that the ICRC and UNICEF may stop using the land-bridge, Thai officials have:
1. Ordered a three-week ban on the Red Cross's Bangkok-to-Phnom Penh flights that carry journalists and researchers to Cambodia.
2. Threatened to send back to Cambodia the nearly 100,000 refugees camped along the border. Thai officials contend that their country alone cannot feed all the people.
The flight ban was announced after Thai newspapers reported charges of abuse made by Prasong Soonsiri, secretary general of Thailand's National Security Council.
He was said to have accused aid agencies of transporting journalists hostile to Thailand and sympathetic of Vietnam's occupation of Cambodia to Phnom Penh under the pretense of being Red Cross or UNICEF officials.
The Red Cross flight had been the major means of access for Western journalists wishing to visit Cambodia.
The Thai ban has raised concern that, in an effort to support Thailand, Singapore might impose a similar ban. Western journalists have flown into Cambodia from Singapore on fligths chartered by the US humanitarian group World Vision.
But some diplomatic sources contacted by telephone in Bangkok doubt the Thai ban really reflects official policy. They suggest it reflects the temporary ascendancy of a particular viewpoints and will later be reversed.
"There is a wide scope of views on this question in the Thai government," said the Bangkok-based aid official.
For their part, ICRC and UNICEF officials deny any charge of smuggling persons into Cambodia. The Thai government was always informed three days in advance of who was aboard, and there were never any objections, they claim. Direct food aid to Phnom Penh is also likely to be reduced, they point out.
The threat to send refugees back to Cambodia came from Supreme Command spokesman Lt. Gen. Som Katthaphand, who maintained that Thailand would not be able to provide enough food if the land-bridge program were ended.
This statement raised questions because the program is aimed at Cambodians inside Cambodia and not at the refugees along the border.
A UNICEF spokesman in Bangkok said his agency would continue to feed refugees along the border even after withdrawal from the land-bridge program. ICRC withdrew from border feeding in July. And some observers in Thailand feel that international support for the program may be waning.
A third and separate feeding program is aimed at the 160,000 refugees in camps run by the United Nations. Even if Thailand clamps down on the nearly 100 ,000 refugees along the border, the UN group will not likely be affected.