Cambodia's rice paddies, made famous in the movie ``The Killing Fields,'' will yield enough harvest next year to make the nation self-sufficient in its primary crop. This prediction by the country's agricultural officials, if it proves true, would signal a critical threshold for Cambodia (Kampuchea). Such a turnaround, nine years after the ouster of the Khmer Rouge regime and after a near-crisis famine, could help bolster the external image of the People's Republic of Kampuchea (PRK), a fledgling government which relies heavily on Vietnam and the Soviet Union for support.
The prospect of an ample rice harvest also highlights the ``realistic'' socialism practiced by the nation's communist party, known as the Kampuchean People's Revolutionary Party.
Faced with consolidating peasant loyalities against continuing guerrilla attacks, party leaders rarely speak of creating a socialist state in Cambodia - a noticeable difference from Soviet pronouncements about the country. Moscow refers to its three Indochina allies (Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos) as ``the outpost of socialism in Asia.''
Khieu Kanharith, editor of the newspaper Kampuchea, says the government at present regards results in production as more important than ideologically correct farms and factories. ``We practice the economics of realism,'' he says. ``We have to provide benefits to the people first. Within the party, those members considered as the most efficient managers in getting results are being promoted.''
This reluctance to impose strict socialism is perhaps made even stronger among Cambodian officials when they see the troubled economy of their neighboring mentor, the socialist republic of Vietnam. ``It is nice we can avoid the failures of the Vietnamese and accept only the good experiences,'' says Foreign Minister Kong Korm.
Cambodian officials also rarely boast of the nation's agricultural progress to visitors, perhaps because it might jeopardize Western assistance for ``reconstruction'' projects, which followed the post-1979 emergency food-aid programs.
Such Western aid, both private and government, gives a small measure of international recognition to the PRK, albeit unofficial. Since Vietnamese troops entered Cambodia in late 1978, the UN General Assembly has refused to recognize the PRK, instead giving Cambodia's seat to a tripartite anti-Hanoi coalition of three resistence groups, which includes the Khmer Rouge.
Western aid, funneled through a dozen or more private groups with offices in Phnom Penh, helps Cambodia reduce its dependence on aid from Moscow and Hanoi, a point stressed by some PRK officials.
Achieving rice self-suffi ciency next year would be an important milestone for the government's five-year plan (1986-1990). The plan is a rush program to boost food production to help stabilize the country in time for the planned withdrawal of an estimated 140,000 Vietnamese troops in 1990.
This year's rice deficit will be about 76,000 metric tons, says Chea Kong, director of planning in the Agriculture Ministry. The deficit has gone up and down over the last few years, depending on the weather, but the trend is decidedly down. ``If the weather is good, we will be self-sufficient in 1988,'' he says. Rice imports have steadily dropped from 1.2 million tons in 1981 to 0.4 million tons in 1985.
After taking power in 1979, the PRK's agricultural policy was almost laissez-faire as the nation recovered from the Khmer Rouge's ruthless utopian socialism (one reason socialism is now soft-pedalled).
But the government did bar private ownership of land, and has formed nearly 100,000 farm cooperatives known as ``samakki'' (solidarity) groups.
About 70 percent of these groups are really mutual-help societies where 10 to 20 families are allocated land to till each season. Labor and draft animals are generally exchanged between families according to private arrangements, sometimes assisted by local party leaders.
A more rigorous collectivization is being tested in some areas but government officials say they will not promote such ``model villages,'' which now number about 100, unless they are more productive than the normal solidarity groups.
State control of agriculture is most noticeable when farmers are ``persuaded'' to sell about 20 percent of their crop to the government at below market prices in exchange for industrial products, such as Soviet soap or Vietnamese tools, sold at about one-third the market price. The state often has difficulty collecting the rice from farmers, which sometimes results in problems of feeding government workers and city-dwellers.
Farmers are also allowed small plots of 1,500 to 2,000 square meters (1800 to 2400 square yards) to grow vegetables and other crops, which can be sold on the free market. Excess rice can also be sold in the market, but only within a farmer's province. Military checkpoints prevent interprovince rice trade.
One international aid worker in Phnom Penh says the central government's agriculture management is generally ``disorganized,'' which allows provincial leaders much leeway. Nonetheless, the first farm technicians graduated in 1985 from two new agricultural schools. (Many skilled workers were killed by the Khmer Rouge.)
In addition, the Soviet Union has provided more than 1,000 farm tractors. And the International Rice Research Institute, based in the Philippines, began an Australian-backed project this year to promote Western rice-growing techniques and seeds.
Last year, the number of water-control projects either built or restored increased by about 25 percent, according to government publications.
About one-fifth of all rice lands are now irrigated, helping to raise yields per acre. Many dikes and canals dug during Khmer Rouge rule were badly built and designed - in many cases because leaders simply used United States Army maps and followed the imaginary lines of longitude and latitude rather than the contours of the land.