Singapore — Vietnamese-occupied Cambodia has entered a new economic, military, and political stage. From a humanitarian view the benefits in increased food, peace, and security go to the Cambodian people. But the cost is entrenched Vietnamese domination, and a serious political defeat for both China and the noncommunist nations of Southeast Asia.
Thailand, especially, threatened with Vietnam's armies on its border, has seen its position undermined. Shifting events make its policies increasingly appear "anti-humanitarian."
Peace, enforced by some 200,000 Vietnamese soldiers, plus international food aid have in the view of most aid officials and visiting journalists ended the country's food "emergency."
A still inadequate but much-improved rice harvest has all but ended the "land-bridge program" under which food from Thailand was doled out to oxcarts trekking to the border from west Cambodia.
The end of the land bridge is cutting into the profits of Thai merchants who sell rice to relief agencies. By halting Thailand's involvement in a politically acceptable kind of Cambodian relief, the Thai government is also leaving itself in the largely negative position of opposing humanitarian aid directly through the Cambodian government in Phnom Penh.
Increasingly, humanitarian aid flows directly to the Vietnamese-dominated Phnom Penh government.
This strikes a blow at China, Thailand, and other Southeast Asian nations. These nations feel this recognizes and "legitimizes" Vietnam's "aggression" in Cambodia. They do not want Cambodia built up to the point where the drain on Vietnam's economy brought by the occupation is reduced.
But there is virtually nothing China, Thailand, and other Southeast Asian nations can do.
Some Thai officials have hinted they might bar planes or ships from carrying aid to Cambodia from Thailand. But if Thailand were to act upon this rhetoric, its propaganda position would be even weaker.
Meanwhile there are reports of Vietnamese military reinforcements in western Cambodia, apparently in an effort to step up attacks on the China-backed Khmer Rouge and the conservative, noncommunist Khmer Serei. Such reports caused US Ambassador to Thailand Morton I. Abramowitz to recently express concern that fighting could spill over into Thailand, as when Vietnam's forces attacked Thailand last June.
A high Khmer Rouge official, Deputy Premier Ieng Sary, recently claimed in Jakarta that Khmer Rouge have been cooperating with Khmer Serei. But military observers see little sign of any serious threat to Vietnamese military control.
Behind these changes are some 400,000 tons of rice (235,000 tons from the West) received by Cambodia from October 1979 to December 1980. Another 70,000 tons of seeds (60,000 from the West) also helped build the most recent harvest. This led to a relatively optimistic assessment in October by a team from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. The group toured major rice areas by road and helicopter.
Journalists who have traveled widely in Cambodia report no signs of starvation. They see a gradually declining number of farmers moving toward the Thai border for food.
It became clear last month that both UNICEF and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) would soon withdraw from the land-bridge program. The Thai government appeared to retaliate by clamping a temporary three-week ban on carrying newsmen into Cambodia on Red Cross flights.The ban has been continued. World Vision's relief flights from Singapore quickly followed suit to avoid embarrassing the Singapore government, closely allied with Thailand.
But now that the ICRC has actually withdrawn from the land bridge (Dec. 16) and UNICEF is about to follow suit, the Thai government appears to be changing its postion.
Prasong Soonsiri, secretary-general of the National Security Council was reported to have said Dec. 17 that Thailand itself might cut down on food transfered across the land bridge if the food situation in Cambodia has improved.
More ominously the secretary-general also suggested Thailand might not permit air flights or sea shipments to Cambodia if the food situation has improved.
Similarly Thai Foreign Minister Siddhi Savetsila declared Dec. 18, "The Thai government cannot be a party to the distribution of further aid to Phnom Penh, for the purpose of reconstruction of that country, since this violates the purpose of relief assistance which does not include . . . nation building or national development. . . ." Only a "legitimate" government could receive this kind of aid, said Mr. Siddhi.
But a spokesman for the ICRC emphasized in a telephone interview that so far there has been no indication from the Thais of interference with Red Cross flights from Bangkok.
Relief workers maintain that the difference between relief aid and development aid is largely semantic. But a recent UN conference in New York pledging 1981 aid for Cambodia declared the $62 million pledged would go for relief work only.
Many of the UN projects involve seeds, pumps, nutrition, educational and medical assistance.
There is also some assistance with rice mills and the training of truck mechanics. Private organizations are helping with items like spare parts for factories.