Kampuchea slowly rebuilds its society with little outside help

Five years after the overthrow of Pol Pot, Kampuchea is just beginning to rebuild its ravaged society. The government in Phnom Penh, under the tutelage of Hanoi and Moscow, has emphasized the rudiments of economic development, especially, increased food production. This task has been hampered by limitations on foreign assistance, and particularly by Kampuchea's isolation from the noncommunist world.

The spinning and weaving factory in the provincial capital of Kompong Cham northeast of Phnom Penh is a showcase for the government's efforts. It is said to be one of the best such factories in Kampuchea. Ironically, the equipment - which turns bales of cotton into thread and then finished cloth, and even generates its own electricity - was donated by China, a bitter enemy of the present government of Heng Samrin.

After Vietnamese troops toppled Pol Pot's Democratic Kampuchea government in January 1979, a handful of technicians worked to repair the factory. By 1980 it was again turning out calico, khaki, and mosquito netting. The factory now suffers from the shortage of skilled workers which affects the entire country.

''In the past, there were 10 engineers,'' vice-director Chroeng Kong says. ''They were all killed (in the Pol Pot years). There were 30 technicians. Only four survived.''

Of the 1,365 people who once worked in the factory, about 500 survived, but not all returned to their old jobs. About 200 of the present work force of 530 are new recruits.

This and the other factories operating in Kampuchea today are state enterprises. Pay ranges from 108 riels a month for a new worker with no technical training to 145 riels for specialized technicians. Even at the official rate of exchange, this amounts to only about $15 to $20 a month. Workers also have government-supplied housing and free transportation, and they can buy rice at the subsidized price of one riel per kilogram.

''The pay is not enough for workers to feed themselves,'' Kong says, ''but they are happy to work here to contribute to the economy. They also cultivate vegetables and fruit at home.''

Besides the factories, state-run enterprises include the largest fishing operations and major cash crops like rubber. But much of the economy, including the thriving urban markets, remains in private hands despite the government's declared socialist ideals. Even the highway buses which provide most of the country's long-distance passenger transport are privately operated, a government interpreter explains.

Much of the country's agriculture is in private hands as well. Bun Than of the Agriculture Ministry explains that the government is trying to introduce cooperative organization in rice production first.

''We concentrate on rice because we are concerned that everyone have enough to eat,'' Mr. Than says. An official report says 1.3 million families are now in production solidarity groups, 10 to 15 families in a group.

At harvest time, the rice for solidarity groups is divided on the basis of each person's contribution. Those who work harder get more. Those who contribute animals or other privately owned goods also get a larger share. Some is set aside for those who cannot work.

''There are more women than men,'' Than says, ''but 80 percent (of the rural population) are women, children, and old people. In one solidarity group I visited, there were about three men for every seven women.'' Apparently more men died than women in the Pol Pot years.

So far, there are no agricultural taxes. So the government's income - apart from the small amount in market taxes - comes almost entirely from state enterprises and from foreign aid. The Soviet Union is the largest supplier of foreign aid. Foreign Minister Hun Sen in an interview in Phnom Penh put that aid at about $300 million over the past three years.

The lack of funds and the lack of trained personnel combine to limit the range of services the government is able to provide. But the number and quality of services are expanding, if slowly.

The most visible service is schools, which can be seen along major highways and down some back roads, crowded with children in blue and white. An increasing number of the children arrive on bicycles. This year, primary school programs are being expanded by one year, to a five-year curriculum.

''Our purpose is to educate students to be good citizens and also good workers,'' says Meach Savarak, deputy director of Phnom Penh's Chaktomouk school.

Other services remain weak. Many city residents have to haul water from outdoor spigots, and little of the capital's sewer system has been restored. The electric supply is limited and erratic. And although the framework of a medical system is in place, there are far too few trained people to staff it. Only 17 of the 20 provincial hospitals have physicians, according to Dr. My Samedy, dean of the Faculty of Medicine in Phnom Penh, and even those hospitals have only two to four doctors each.

Improving such services will be a slow process, in part because Kampuchea is cut off from United Nations development assistance. Since the UN recognizes the Democratic Kampuchea resistance coalition, Phnom Penh is eligible only for emergency relief aid.

Another obstacle is the still uncertain security situation. The provinces around Phnom Penh, at least, do not have the feel of a country at war but locally organized militias guard most bridges and the major roads. Large bridges are guarded by regular troops, part of the 30,000 or so in Phnom Penh's fledgling armed forces.

Scattered guerrilla actions are reported even in Kompong Cham, a province bordering Viet Nam. It was there, for example, that at least eight Soviet cotton specialists were reported killed last year. They were helping revive cotton production to supply a major textile mill.

The security problems are apparently an embarrassment for the government. Foreign Minister Sen denied that any foreigners or even village-level government officials had been killed in armed attacks.

Another Indochinese source, who acknowledged the murder of the Soviet advisers, is still optimistic about the military prospects. The forces of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge are growing weaker, he says, and Phnom Penh's Army is improving. The changing balance of forces, he is confident, will allow Vietnam to continue gradual withdrawals of its forces, now thought to number about 160, 000.

The hope, apparently, is that even if there is no political resolution of the conflict, the resistance can be whittled down to a manageable nuisance along the Thai-Kampuchean border, and Kampuchea can continue the slow process of rebuilding.

Next: Kampuchea's struggle to feed itself

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