Relief efforts have at least temporarily checked the threat of mass starvation in Cambodia, according to international agencies working in that country.
That good news coincides with a new development which could significantly affect any international effort to find a political solution to the crisis in Cambodia: Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the former chief of state of Cambodia and the man who just a year ago led an effective campaign at the United Nations against the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, now is proposing friendship with Hanoi. This is certain to displease the Chinese, who were once the leading supporters of the Prince.
In Washington, there was no immediate official reaction to Prince Sihanouk's overtures to the Vietnamese. One Carter administration official speculated that the exiled former Cambodian ruler may have felt that he had no place to turn to Hanoi.
Prince Sihanouk's new position, outlined in an interview with the Australian leftist journalist Wilfred Burchett, is described by Mr. Burchett in an article written for the current issue of The Nation magazine.
Officials from international relief agencies, in the meantime, have been reporting a considerable speed-up in recent weeks in the movement of Western-donated food from warehouses into the Cambodian distribution system. Relief officials who have traveled into the Cambodian countryside report that malnutrition is a persistent problem, but that the famine which was feared just a few months ago has not occurred.
"There has been a complete transformation," said Tony Hewett, liaison officer in New York with the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). "There are still cases of light-to-moderate malnutrition, but there's an enormous difference between July and August of last year and what we see now."
Officials such as Mr. Hewett warn, however, that this by no means marks the end of the need for an international relief effort. They predict that by March or April, once Cambodia's current limited rice harvest is exhausted, large-scale shipments of food will once again be required.
According to the Cambodia Crisis Center, a private, nonprofit clearinghouse for information on Cambodia in Washington, D.C., December's rice harvest in Cambodia was only 10 to 20 percent of the normal crop. The next planting comes in June and will not be ready for harvesting until the end of the year. The center cites estimates that 200,000 metric tons of food will be needed in 1980, to help feed some 3.5 million cambodians.
The center reports that sufficient progress in moving food and supplies out of warehouses in the port of Kompong Som has led the United Nations World Food Program to resume its shipments to that port.
According to Mr. Hewett, port crews from the Soviet Union are helping to unload ships and have trained 200 Cambodians to move food and supplies reaching Kompong Som. He adds, however, that there is still room for considerable improvement in the distribution system.
Only a matter of weeks ago, some White House officials were accusing the Soviets of deliberately working to divert food supplies away from Cambodians who needed it most. When closely questioned about these allegations, however, State Department officials were unable to substantiate such charges.
In his interview with Wilfred Burchett, Prince Sihanouk said that an unconditional departure of Soviet-supported Vietnamese troops from Cambodia would be no solution to the Cambodia crisis, inasmuch as this would simply allow the Chinese-backed guerrillas from the ousted Pol Pot regime to take over once again. He proposed that Vietnamese troops be gradually replaced by an international force and that the Cambodian people then be given a free choice through elections.
Prince Sihanouk charged that there was an "American-Chinese plot" to support Pol Pot and that the American ambassador in Peking, Leonard Woodcock, had urged him to come to terms with Pol Pot.
An American official said that this was an inaccurate account of what was said by Mr. Woodcock in a meeting between the ambassador and the former Cambodian ruler. The official did not express great surprise, however, at Prince Sihanouk's about-face in his attitude toward the Vietnamese, given the Prince's past history of zigzagging designed to give himself and his country room to maneuver -- and survive.