Can food aid for Cambodia defuse Thai-Viet frictions?

A just-completed conference on how to avert famine in Cambodia dealt with a question that goes beyond the fate of war-and hunger-ravaged people: How to prevent Thai-Vietnamese border friction from escalating into a confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union that could "polarize" Southeast Asia.

For if the May 26-27 Geneva conference, attended by some 60 countries, leads to more efficient aid and hence greater stability in Cambodia, the possibility of a flare-up between American-supported Thailand and Soviet-backed Vietnam will recede.

But if international aid continues to be bottlenecked, then masses of hungry Cambodians are expected to trek across their country for food relief on the Thai border, possibly in August. That could bring friction between Thai forces and Vietnamese troops trying to stabilize western Cambodia by battling the China-backed Khmer Rouge.

Thai sources had hoped this month's beginning dialogue with Vietnam would change Hanoi's attitude toward international relief. But when Vietnamese Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thack visitied Bangkok it was made clear that Vietnam , like the Soviet Union, would boycott the Geneva conference.

That was hardly unexpected, since the United Nations General Assembly had refused to drop recognition of the anti-Vietnam Khmer Rouge.

But the real question is what will happen after the conference. One Thai source says a crucial issue is whether Vietnam will quietly loosen its grip on relief efforts both on the Thai border and through airlifts and shipping to the capital city of Phnom Penh.

Indeed, American and British delegates to the meeting asked that air routes to Cambodia be simplified and that provincial airports be opened for relief distribution. So far only one to two pounds of rice per person per month is reaching many people, according to one diplomatic source. The situation is getting worse. For the first time since last November, refugees are again talking about widespread malnutrition.

Part of the problem is excessive stockpiling, inefficient trucking, and bad roads from Phnom Penh. In addition, the Cambodian government reportedly has a demoralized, rudimentary civil service. But some experts believe Vietnam simply has not given high enough priority to the aid program.

Vietnam officially endorses aid coming in through Phnom Penh. It officially condemns aid coming into western Cambodia from Thailand, but quietly appears to accept this as one way of easing food shortages. Even so, the aid from Thailand helps feed the Khmer Rouge, complicating Vietnam's security problem.

One problem is that the aid discrupts Cambodia's shaky farming. Hungry peasants give up tilling the land to trek toward the Thai border. Others head for cities like Phnom Penh to get government relief. This, plus continued fighting, is one reason little dry-season rice was planted last winter. There are predictions of largel-scale food shortages in August.

From the Thai point of view the key is to stabilize the movement of people and troops in Cambodia through an orderly aid program. But whether Vietnam wants a reduction of tensions badly enough to cooperate remains to be seen.

Still, some international relief workers report improvement in the still-backwards distribution system out of Phnom Penh. This could be a sign that the Vietnamese are moving in what the Thais and others see as the "right direction."

But Thailand also wants more stability in western Cambodia. At present, a "black market" system of Cambodian merchants funnels international rice aid into Cambodia, where thousands of refugees are constantly on the move. Vietnamese and Vietnamese-backed soldiers take an estimated 5 to 30 percent of the rice. The lure of food near Thailand has brought nearly 500,000 persons to makeshift camps o both sides of the border. Run by anticomunist leaders, the camps are vulnerable to Vietnamese attacks, and many fear any fighting could spill over into Thailand.

Thus some Western experts want a more orderly distribution of aid in western Cambodia, perhaps via a "land bridge" truck route. Refugee movement would then be unnecessary. So far, however, Vietnams has refused such foreign transits.

Meanwhile, an increasingly fierce debate rages among international relief agencies over how best to aid Cambodia. The International Committee of the Red Cross and the UN Children's Fund distribute limited amounts of food on the border. They also fly seed and other supplies directly to Phnom Penh.

Relief agencies feel that too much aid from Thailand will disrupt the recovery of Cambodia's economy by causing refugee movements and reducing rice plantings.

On the other side are of the UN world food program, American relief organizations like CARE and World Relief, and other such groups backed by the American Embassy in Bangkok.

So now the big question is just how far will Vietnam bend. With widespread hunger predicted by August, the time for any direct or indirect policy change may be short.

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