CAMBODIA is in an uneasy limbo between war and peace. The 12-year civil war sputters with only intermittent fighting between the three resistance factions and the Vietnam-backed Phnom Penh regime. Widely expected offensives during the winter dry season have stalled.
But while members of the four groups hinted earlier this week at a new willingness to resume United Nations-sponsored talks, political factionalism continues to delay a cease-fire during which the UN would temporarily administer Cambodia and oversee national elections.
Last September, the squabbling Cambodians agreed to the UN peace plan, but six months later they remain divided over the makeup of an interim government. Phnom Penh voices concern over the UN's planned role.
With peace still in the wind, the four resistance factions are scrambling to strengthen their political influence and hold on to territory inside Cambodia, some Western observers say.
``There is a huge difference between the diplomatic discussions and the reality on the ground,'' says the head of a major international relief organization. ``The present split in the resistance is leading to the division of Cambodia.''
International aid organizations in this Thai border town now worry about a controversial US program to aid the resistance in an area just inside Cambodia. The US Agency for International Development plans to channel up to $20 million in nonmilitary aid to the noncommunist resistance groups, the Khmer People's National Liberation Front, headed by former prime minister Son Sann, and the forces of Prince Norodom Sihanouk, Cambodia's hereditary ruler.
The program, which is believed to parallel a cutback in covert military assistance to the rebels, includes the supply of trucks and medicine, training to medical personnel, and the construction of a hospital.
Many nongovernment organizations, which do not receive money under the program, consider the program a cynical effort at buying political favor and contend it defies efforts to give Cambodians a free choice on when to return home and where to live.
``This form of bilateral assistance is perpetuating the factionalism. The administrations are using it as a carrot to draw people to those areas,'' says a UN official. ``No one is questioning the need for assistance, but there are a lot of people with needs all over the country.''
Despite Washington's switch last year to make contact with the Phnom Penh regime and its Vietnamese backers, officials say the US still applies economic pressure on Prime Minister Hun Sen.
In the past, the US has been stung by criticism that its long-standing support for the three-party rebel coalition indirectly helped the Chinese-backed communist Khmer Rouge faction that is blamed for the deaths of 1 million Cambodians in the 1970s.
``We're not neutral in this conflict,'' says an American diplomat in Bangkok. ``You don't bring Cambodia on board a peace plan by offering support. You bring them on board by increasing economic pressure.
The noncommunist politicking was triggered by Khmer Rouge efforts to tighten its economic and political grip on a large belt running along the western border with Thailand. The Marxist guerrillas run a lucrative gem mining business around the western Cambodian city of Pailin, an operation that could subsidize the group even if its Chinese patrons cut aid.
Although China said it had cut aid to the Khmer Rouge earlier this fall, military supplies continue, Western diplomats say.
``The Khmer Rouge is playing along with the diplomats. Their main strategy is political infiltration rather than military,'' says a Western diplomat in Bangkok. ``The Khmer Rouge is quite a wealthy little outfit, and if military aid were cut off, they could turn to the open market.''
The guerrillas, however, also are encountering difficulties in building a political base in western Cambodia. In the last year, the Khmer Rouge has pushed almost 100,000 Cambodians from Thai border camps into rebel-held Cambodia, an international aid official says.
Although they are often prevented from moving, thousands of people have been driven back to the camps in Thailand recently by a malaria epidemic and growing food shortages.
Indeed, the six UN-administered camps along the border again are swelling with new refugees. Since last November, 14,000 new Cambodians have flooded the area, raising the Khmer border population to 314,000. The World Food Program of the UN estimates that Cambodia will be hit by a food deficit of 100,000 metric tons this year, three times that of 1990.
Buffeted by disease and food shortages, the refugees are increasingly under the sway of the foreign-financial political factions, Western observers say.
``These people are the hostages of the political leaders,'' says the head of an international relief organization. ``When it comes time to go home, in the end most of them won't be given a free choice.''