A RAGING guerrilla war has not stopped Cambodia's government from rapidly exploiting one of the last giant stands of hardwoods in Asia. Men with axes and buzz saws are working overtime to help the regime in Phnom Penh earn badly needed dollars from timber exports. Trucks with logs up to 10 feet in diameter are as common on highways as military tanks and troop convoys. Timber production has doubled in three years, raising concerns of ecological ruin.
But the economic lure of the country's rich forests also has a political purpose.
The embattled government of Prime Minister Hun Sen - not recognized by most nations because it was installed after Vietnam's invasion in 1978 - has begun a kind of ``timber diplomacy.''
With up to 70 percent of its land covered by forest, Cambodia is in a position to pay back allies and friends with timber resources.
Outside Phnom Penh, for instance, a $2.5 million Japanese saw mill opened this year, cutting and exporting one-quarter of all the harvested logs in Cambodia - despite Japan's official economic boycott of Cambodia.
And in Thailand, commercial loggers are eager to exploit Cambodia's timber as their forests have dwindled because of overcutting. Officials in Phnom Penh say that political pressure by the loggers helped lead to Thailand's diplomatic shift last year to reduce support for the guerrilla resistance and to try to convert Cambodia ``from a battlefield into a marketplace.''
Thai companies are asking for rights to cut 600,000 square meters of round timber a year, more than double the forest reserves harvested this year. A Thai-Cambodian Economic Cooperation Commission has been set up to promote business.
Cambodian officials say that the Thai military, which has links with commercial loggers, has stopped using the Khmer Rouge guerrilla force to obtain smuggled logs from Cambodia, because the Khmer Rouge are weaker than before and control few forested areas.
``The Thai military needs direct links with the government to get logs,'' says a Cambodian Foreign Ministry official.
Vietnam and the Soviet Union, the regime's closest allies, are being compensated for their massive aid to the isolated regime with both logs and cut timber.
In fact, the new saw mill, built by Okada Company and one of six in the country, exports 30 percent of its sawn timber to the Soviet Union.
``We'll sell timber to anyone who gives us the cash and the technology,'' says Iv Thong, director of the government's Institute of Economics.
About half the nation's yearly timber harvest is taken by Vietnam, which holds a 180,000-acre concession in Kratie province. The concession's exports last year yielded $3 million for Cambodia.
Only about 4 percent of the areas now being cut are being replanted, officials estimate. ``We're cutting too fast. We're not thinking of the future,'' says Kong Darith, deputy director of the Prek Phreou saw mill.
The rapid loss of forest cover has brought about a change in Cambodia's weather, says Mr. Kong. ``I've seen it change more and more every year since we started cutting . The fish are disappearing as our spawning areas are destroyed.
``Before, we knew exactly when the rainy season would stop and start. Now it's very irregular.''