Vietnamese paying steep price at home for Cambodia occupation?

Something strange is happening in Indochina. Food levels and living standards are going up in Vietnamese-occupied Cambodia.

But back home in Vietnam living standards appear to be falling. Growing shortages of food, goods, and fuel are now even officially admitted.

Some would say that Vietnam may be paying the cost for its Cambodian military adventure. But whatever the reason, poor economic performance is a common topic of discussion in Vietnam. And what is being said there dovetails with what recently arrived Vietnamese refugees have been telling this correspondent in Singapore.

The latest official admissions came shortly before Christmas in a Vietnamese economic report delivered to the National Assembly by Vice-Premier Nguyen Lam. It said food shortages have hit hard in the cities, due to a slow agricultural process, bad weather, and a booming birthrate. It noted also that shortages of fuel, power, and raw materials are hobbing industries. Widespread discussion and criticism had been reported in Vietnam even before the adoption of a new Constitution in mid-December. The frank criticism emerged in public discussion of the new document, adopted by the National Assembly in Hanoi.

Refugees arriving in Singapore in the last month have corroborated the stories of growing hardship in the country.

"I ran a small shop for my family," explained one woman with a family of four. "But it was getting harder and harder to get rice and vegetables to sell. Also, there were too many sellers but few buyers, since fewer and fewer people have money to spend."

Another refugee claimed supplies of chicken were being depleted because the government had raised taxes on the produce many farmers grow in their spare time.

"Before there was poverty, but at least everyone could afford some rice. Now many are reduced to eating rice soup," commented yet another.

One widespread complaint was the devaluation of the dong to the new piaster. According to refugees, 200 old dong equal one new piaster, which cuts into the buying power of people with the old currency.

Furthermore, small shops must pay taxes in the new currency, thus raising the cost of doing business.

Ordinarily refugee accounts must be taken with some skepticism; they are often designed to build sympathy or secure resettlement in third countries. But most of the 1,000 refugees in Singapore already have been guaranteed places or resettlement. (Singapore generally does not allow refugee-carrying ships to enter port without officers guaranteeing that their passengers have some permanent place to go.)

And the refugee accounts square with recent official Vietnamese statements. Few refugees interviewed by this correspondent cited a desire for "freedom" as a reason for leaving. Most cited economic deprivation as the reason for wanting to leave.

Nevertheless, one young man did say he fled largely to avoid the military draft and fighting in Cambodia. "Veterans of Cambodia come back and tell us stories of comrades killed in Cambodia," he said. to avoie the draft, he constantly moved from house to house.

A young mother, whose husband was imprisoned for three years after serving in the pro-American, anticommunist Army, said she was required to check in at the police station once a week. It was their way of keeping an eye on her.

Still, she eventually was able to flee on a fishing boat -- at a cost of about $2,000. Several refugees confirmed that Vietnam has clamped down on refugee escape routes by patrolling coastla waters, boosting police surveillance , and doling out prison terms to those caught fleeing. In some cases authorities have even sunk would-be escape vessels.

But police corruption continues, the refugees noted. So disgruntled Vietnamese are still able to escape or continue to operate private shops by paying off authorities.

Refugee accounts also back up an authoritative article on serious political, social, and economic difficulties published in November by Nhan Dan, the newspaper of the Vietnamese Communist Party.

The article described ideological and economic failures, corruption, widespread theft of state property, and growing popular disaffection in the country. The article cited the difficulties confronting many farmers and small manufacturers in trying to produce goods at low state prices. Many of them haven't been able to produce them at low state prices and the black market has mushroomed.

Nhan Dan's solution to the country's woes harked back to the days of Stalin. It called for tighter control at the helm of the ship.

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