UN tackles thorny issue of food aid to hungry Cambodia

Cambodia is once again threatened with famine. Ebeen pouring in at an accelerated pace the last six months, more help is urgently needed to save millions of Cambodian lives, a number of noncommunist Asian countries say.

Members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are requesting that a ministerial-level UN conference be convened "as soon as possible" in New York or Geneva to deal with the issue.

It would be modeled largely after last July's conference in Geneva on the "boat people."

The idea is drawing mixed reactions. China, Japan, and the US are in the forefront of those pushing for a meeting. But Vietnam and some socialist countries see it as just a political ploy to focus world attention on Vietman's occupation of Cambodia.

Still other observers contend the meeting could actually hurt UNICEF-Red Cross efforts.

"You cannot on the one hand attack the local authorities and then expect them to trust you and cooperate with you," one analyst says.

In the end, according to reliable diplomatic sources, this new international conference is likely to be convened next month. It is far from clear, however, whether it will be helpful or detrimental to the Cambodian people in their plight.

UNICEF-Red Cross food and medicine deliveries rushed to Cambodia last winter definitely saved that nation last winter from near genocide. But the situation has since deteriorated.

Dry season plantings have been unsatisfactory. Despite the 1,000 trucks Phnom Penh authorities now have at their disposal, food distribution to the countryside has been inadequate. Port unloading has also been slow.

To avert a new famine, UNICEF-Red Cross must distribute 30,000 tons of rice seeds and 4,000 tons of fertilizer to six provincial districts. Vietnam has pledged to 10,000 tons, Thailand 15,000 tons, the Philippines 3,000 tons. But UNICEF officials feel an additional 300,000 tons of foodstuffs will be needed this year.

Privately, high UNICEF and UN officials insist that local authorities are now extremely cooperative and that the distribution problem results from lack of manpower and organization. They also claim that diversion of food and medicine by the Vietnamese military is marginal.

Thailand and its ASEAN partners think that a high-level international conference is needed to:

* Highlight that food provide by the international community is not being properly delivered.

* Prod the major donors into providing more financial assistance to UNICEF-Red Cross (only $30 million out of the $106 million needed was pledged at a March 23 donor's meeting in New York).

* Tell the world that food supplies are still rotting in Cambodian ports and try to head off the arrival of thousands of new refugees into Thailand.

* Pressure Vietnam to be more cooperative, allowing, for instance, the establishment of a land bridge from the Thai border into Cambodia.

No one, of course, wants to publicly oppose the convening of a conference that flies a purely humanitarian banner. But many diplomats and UN officials privately claim such a conference is not needed to raise money.

A new donors' meeting is scheduled for May 13 anyway, and prospects for getting the funds needed for UNICEF efforts are considered to be excellent.

Vietnam, its communist allies, and some Africans who believe not enough attention is being paid to refugees on their continent, oppose the conference idea. Therefore a consensus favoring it is unlikely to come about at the UN's Economic and Social Council, which has been asked to call for a meeting. If the matter is going to be pressed a vote -- and there are indications that it will -- then the ASEAN initiative will in all likelihood be successful.

"It may be good politics to strike a blow at Vietnam in the broad East-West context, but this move may defeat its own stated purpose of trying to save lives in Cambodia," says one high-ranking UN official.

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