Border violence squeezes Cambodian food supplies

The violence of the past three weeks on the Thai-Cambodian border has not only added to the intense suffering of its principal victims, the CAmbodian refugees.

The Clashes between Vietnamese and Thai troops have also put in jeopardy the whole feeding operation by international relief agencies.

Representatives of the International Commmittee of the Red Cross, UNICEF, and the World Food Program are meeting in Bangkok this week to decide what to do about their feeding programs, already disrupted by the border violence.

The international relief agencies' feeding operation, which has so far kept many of the refugees alive as well as sustaining those Cambodians who have not fled across the Thai border, is two-pronged:

1. Along the border, both in the refugee camps and by land bridge into an area directly across the border inside Cambodia.

2. By air and sea bridges, usually from Thailand, into the Cambodian heartland, via either Phnom Penh airport or the port of Kompong Som.

The Vietnamese military incursion across the Thai border from Cambodia three weeks ago was clearly intended in part to put a stop to what the Vietnamese saw as the replenishing and revictualling of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge forces by a coalition of the relief agencies and the Thai authorities.

The agencies' response was a decision to enforce more strictly their rule against feeding armed groups. This could result in a greatly diminished distribution of food on the Thai-Cambodian border -- with the Thai government then faced with having to shoulder an even bigger share of the burden of keeping alive the 400,000 to 500,000 Cambodian refugees in Thailand.

The Thais have tried to head this off by telling the agencies that unless the border feeding program is kept going, the agencies would no longer be allowed to use Thailand as a base to lift food to Phnom Penh or Kompong Som.

If food from the agencies has hitherto helped feed Khmer Rouge guerrillas on the border, food from the agencies shipped directly into Phnom Penh or Kompong Som has often gone directly into Vietnamese-controlled warehouses. This, in turn, has raised doubts as to whether that food was not going to armed groups, rather than to starving mothers and children.

The extent to which the people of Cambodia have been wracked in the travail of the past five years is indicated by statistics arrived at by US intelligence and Census Bureau experts. In 1975, when the communists took over in Phnom Penh , the population of Cambodia was about 7 million. With normal growth over the past five years, it would now be about 9 million. It is instead somewhere between 5.3 and 6.1 million. One Cambodia specialist puts it at 5.7 million. Thus the events of the past five years have cost Cambodia at least 3 million people, either through death or never having been born.

Of those who survive, up to half a million are in Thailand. Till now, others have tended to concentrate close to the Thai border with access to relief-agency food or food seeds (mainly rice).

Like the Cambodian people themselves, the relief agencies are caught in the middle of a savage conflict with scant regard for human sensitivities between the Soviet-backed Vietnamese with their Cambodian puppet in Phnom Penh, Heng Samrin, and the Chinese-supported Khmer Rouge guerrilla forces of the ousted regime of Pol Pot.

The US leans more toward Pol Pot -- at least in so far as the US refrained from casting a vote last fall to oust Pol Pot's representative from the United Nations and replace him with a nominee of Heng Samrin. The US has never had any illusions about the brutality of Pol Pot's policies. But there is a clinical or principled objection to accepting as legitimate ruler a man like Heng Samrin installed by the bayonets of an invading foreign army.

Anticommunist Thailand is somewhere between China and the US in its attitude toward Pol Pot. The one thing the Thais do not want on their border is the Vietnamese Army, the most Prussian or Spartan military force in all Southeast Asia. There is an age-old hostility between Thais and Vietnamese. And rather than have the hard-nosed Vietnamese in their present expansive mood next door in Cambodia, the Thais would rather have there either chronic anarchy or even the ruthless Pol Pot.

The practical result of this preference has been a Thai inclination to look the other way when the Chinese have used Thailand as a supply route for Pol Pot's guerrilla force inside Cambodia, estimated at between 10,000 and 30,000 -strong. This force is concentrated in the Cardamom Mountains in southwest Cambodia and uses the refugee camps astride the Thai-Cambodian border as sanctuaries.

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