"In the beginning, before the Soviets or the UN arrived, there was just us," said the Vietnamese official. He was recalling the early days of 1979. Right after the Vietnamese Army invaded Cambodia and overthrew the Chinese-backed government of Pol Pot, there was no economic and from the Soviet Union of the United Nations.
"We had to do everything," the official declared.
When the Vietnamese arrived in Cambodia, they found a country whose human and physical resources had been devastated. Skilled Cambodians had been killed, had fled the country, or were often too traumalized by the Pol Pot years to come forward.
For the first year or so, while Vietnamese troopsfought the soldiers of Pol Pot, Vietnamese officials kept the country together. Others trained a new generation of Cambodian administrators in three-to-six-week crash courses.
Today things are beginning to change slowly. Cambodians handle most of the administration. Others are being trained in Vietnam or Eastern European countries. The advisory structure Hanoi put together in 1979 remains in operation. But senior Vietnamese officials are thinking of a second phase of operations, focusing on the key issues of economic planning, defense, and "political assistance."
This second phase, which will probably start in the next year or so, will have the same aim as the first: to build a Cambodia that is ideologically, and perhaps structurally, in Vietnam's image.
Each Cambodian ministry or directorate has its Vietnamese advisory team, usually headed by a Vietnamese vice-minister or deputy director. Vietnamese mass organizations like the Women's Union, Intellectuals Association, or Labor Federation send informal advisers to their Cambodian counterparts -- or keep in touch through frequent visits. In political schools Vietnamese instructors and Cambodian offcials teach Marxism side by side.
In the countryside provincial governments have their Vietnamese advisory team -- generally specialists in health, agriculture, security, and military matters. In villages and districts, Vietnamese sometimes carry out jobs for which no Cambodians have yet been trained.
These particular specialists often come from yet another source of aid and advice -- the twinning programs that link Vietnamese and Cambodian provinces. Generally these provide Cambodian provinces with medical teams, road repair crews, and soldiers from the Vietnamese twin's regional forces.
While thousands of Vietnamese advisers work in Cambodia, thousands, if not tens of thousands, of Cambodians are taking courses or training in Vietnam.
Do Vietnamese advisers just advise, or do they really run the country? The question is difficult to answer. But the evidence suggests that the Cambodians are feeling more and more confident, competent -- and occasionally irritated at the continued presence of Vietnamese specialists.
"The advisers are just that," snapped one Cambodian, "They give us advice and sometimes we take it."
The Vietnamese also admit to problems with their new allies. "It's a thankless task," said one. "When something goes right, the Cambodians pat themselves on the back. When it goes badly, they blame us."
The Vietnamese insist, however, that they are not going to be deflected from their objectives by Cambodian irritation. "Anti-Vietnamese feeling took centuries to take root here, and it will take at least a generation to eliminate ," one official said with a shrug.
Some advisers are being withdrawn, but on a strictly case-by-case basis. "When they see we can do a job, they leave us to it," said one Cambodian functionary. But the departures may well be balanced out by new arrivals sent in to handle planning and military training.
The major defense priority this year, as far as Hanoi is concerned is the upgrading of the Cambodian army from semitrained regional forces to fully fledged regular units. The Vietnamese also plan to develop an air force, navy, artillery and logistics units.
Vietnamese officials who previously had little positive to say about the Cambodian Army now praise its performance as surprisingly good. It is perhaps for this reason that the Vietnamese have begun to talk about withdrawing some of their own troops before the end of the "Chinese threat," if the Cambodian Army continues to develop well.
If the Vietnamese give the Cambodians leeway in the day-to-day running of the country, they make their voice heard in no uncertain manner on the core issue of Cambodia's development -- ideology.
Recently, however, Vietnamese officials have expressed misgivings about "vestiges of Maoism" in the Cambodian communist party, particularly as regards economic planning. This was recently the subject of a heated debate between some Cambodian leaders and the Vietnamese. Hanoi's view prevailed.
"Certain leading comrades," according to one Vietnamese, "felt that a major success of the Pol Pot regime had been the elimination of private property and complete socialization of the economy. They were unhappy about the return of private traders and felt it should be abolished immediately. We disagreed.In the present situation where the government sector is so weak, we have to rely on and even encourage some aspects of the private sector, such as transport and handicrafts."
The Vietnamese also say they urged on their allies the adoption of a collective leadership rather than concentrating power in one person's hands. "This minimizes the risk of another Pot Pol-type situation," explained an official.
The recent influx of Soviet economic and military aid, as well as the growth of the Soviet presence in Phnom Penh, has led to speculation that Hanoi and Moscow are competing for influence.The Vietnamese play down such suggestions, stress they are still the senior ally of Cambodia, and say they are encouraging increased Soviet aid.
However one official explained that Soviet political assistance was "not necessary."
Vietnamese aid to Cambodia has been an enormous drain on the country's weak economy. In 1979 and 1980, according to official figures, Hanoi gave $118 million in assistance; this year it will give about $70 million more.
"Certainly it has been hard for us to give all this aid," one official admitted. "But it's a small price to pay for our long-term security."