Cambodia's food situation, which appeared desperate last fall, is improving. But the potential for disaster remains. While the food and medical situation has improved markedly since October, a continuing full-scale international relief effort is needed throughout this year.
This is the picture drawn by the highest UNICEF, United Nations, and Red Cross officials who have recently visited the area. It is also the conviction of independent diplomats, clergymen, and newspapermen who traveled inside Cambodia and visited the refugee camps.
The UNICEF/Red Cross operation is credited with averting what might have become a genocide through famine mainly because it succeeded in insulating itself from politics.
One high official says: "Our primary objective is to save life, not to cast a good or a bad light on the Heng Samrin regime. To tell you the truth, we have found it easier to shield ourselves from political winds coming from the East than from those coming from the West."
The UNICEF/Red Cross success story over the last six months was attributed to three principal building blocks.
The first was psychological: An atmosphere of confidence gradually developed between the Cambodian authorities and UNICEF/Red Cross. "They got accustomed to our face," says a UNICEF official, quoting from "My Fair Lady."
The second was material: By the end of the year 45,000 tons of aid had arrived at the main ports of entry by air and by sea. Some 1,000 trucks had been delivered.
Combined, these two factors generated a third and decisivem one: The Cambodian authorities, no longer uncertain with regard to further and regular food supplies, and with warehouses in Phnom Penh and Kompong Som well stocked, allowed the peasants to keep their rice crop.
Normally in Asia, the governments tax and procure the crops. The decision to leave the crops in place in the villages -- in places most difficult to reach by truck -- had a dramatic impact throughout Cambodia. Malnutrition cases are still occasionally reported, but by all available accounts people are now able to feed themselves. The Phnom Penh government has allowed the villagers to harvest freely and consume locally. It has authorized the foreign aid to be distributed to the limits of the distribution system.
UN officials point to another positive development as far as the future is concerned: UNICEF/Red Cross personnel have not only been allowed to visit the provincial capitals to make estimates of the situation and of future needs, but also the Cambodian government accepts their estimates as to "whatm is needed, whenm and where."m they say furthermore that there is no evidence of deliberate diversion of foodstuffs by the Vietnamese military.
Lifting of food and medicine supplies by the military occurs occasionally but represents a minor leakage. No such program can be expected to be perfect. Even in the United States welfare programs and distribution of food stamps are occasionally known to be corrupted.
The UNICEF/Red Cross relief effort to the Cambodian refugees inside Thailand has also been largely successful. The camp population has come down from 700, 000 a few months ago to 450,000 at the present time. Some 250,000 refugees have returned to their villages inside Cambodia since they knew they would be fed. A high-ranking UN official flatly states: "In the border area, where Cambodians were dying by the hundreds every day, everybody now has access to minimum food."
The main difficulty with monitoring the distribution of food in the camps, according to various well-placed diplomatic as well as UN sources, has been the result not so much of infrequent confiscations by Vietnamese military as of organized corruption inside the camps.
Cambodian camp leaders, well connected with high Thai officials, have profited considerably from diverting food supplies from their recipients. UNICEF-Red Cross efforts to closely and systematically check on the food distribution have been repeatedly obstructed by Thai authorities. "These facts are being shoved under the carpet by Western diplomats who are more interested in strengthening the Sino- American-Thai anti-Vietnamese alliance than in preserving life," one diplomat who is intimately familiar with the says bitterly.