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Cambodia's surprising recovery

"Full recovery" is an assessment to be given only cautiously in a land that only 15 months ago seemd on the brink of extinction. But any return visitor to Cambodia today will see remarkable evidence of health in happy contrast to conditions a year ago.

When I visited Cambodia only three months after Vietnamese troops ousted the radical Khmer Rouge regime of Pol Pot, Cambodian civilians walked about the countryside, dazed, in a state of shock, searching for loved ones and uncertain if they would have enough to eat tomorrow.

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Eight months later, I found Cambodians struggling to survive, lining up for pitiful rations -- often merely animal corn. While many depended on a precarious lifeline to Thailand for food, the Phnom Penh government grappled with distribution of international relief supplies slowly and inefficiently.

A visit now reveals Cambodians living better and eating better than at any other time since 1975. And for those Cambodians I talked to who suffered the dislocations caused by American bombing and five years of civil war in the early 1970s, life seemed better than any time since Norodom Sihanouk was overthrown in March 1970.

The unpleasant fact for critics of the puppet regime established by Vietnam is that the nation is doing surprisingly well under the government headed by former battalion commander Heng Samrin. And especially by comparison to the incredibly cruel rulers of 2 1/2 years ago, the Vietnamese appear to be rather benevolent occupiers.

Phnom Penh has undergone a striking transformation since earlier visits. In early 1979 the city, then largely abandoned, suffered the looting of vagabond Cambodians and prowling Vietnamese soldiers. Now it is alive with shops, food stalls, markets, and schools. Streets are clogged with traffic. Both Pedicabs and a public transport system have returned. And Cambodian policemen struggle to cope with the flow along Monivong Boulevard.

In the countryside, the rice crop harvested during the past several months is by all accounts of higher yield than expected. The government now hopes it will provide better than 70 percent of the country's needs.The shortfall in 1981, about 200,000 tons, it is hoped will be made up through outside contributions equally divided between Western and Eastbloc nations.

Although there are some variations from province to province, rural production has been reorganized into "solidarity groups" of between 5 and 15 families pooling their resources and being paid according to their input. Current policy is to allow the peasants to keep their crop or sell it to the government voluntarily. This policy, however, probably will change with the next rice harvest.

In addition, each family is permitted a private plot of from 1,500 to 2,000 square yards. There is no sign the present communist government wishes to reestablish the highly unpopular communal system imposed by the Khmer Rouge.

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In struggling back to life, both city and country are encountering a number of predictable problems.

The artificial infusion of large quantities of international relief and a flourishing black market fed by easy free trade across the border with Thailand have made centralized planning difficult.So while theoretically following a Vietnamese communist model for economic management, the Phnom Penh government has allowed a free market economy to prosper.

The free (or black) markets of Phnom Penh bear a surprising similarity to those through which I wandered 10 years ago during a first visit to Cambodia. A train from northwest Battambang province arrives twice a week bulging with produce smuggled in from neighboring Thailand, Japanese radios, European medicines, pots and pans, all too expensive for the average worker, and even a high-quality hashish at 70 cents a bushel find their way onto the market.

Free market rice prices serve as an indication of the improved food situation. Rice prices have dropped by 40 percent between October 1980 and the first of this year, bringing them in line with the official price the government pays for farmers' rice. (The official price has been set at one riel or roughly 25 cents a kilogram.)

This currency, which was introduced less than a year ago (the Khmer Rouge regime had no money), appears to have gained acceptance; it is even traded on the black market at nearly double its legal exchange rate.

Most industry (there are about a dozen plants in the capital) remains under state control and is managed by an uneasy alliance of committee cadre with no discernible expertise and trained managers who served industry under Prince Norodom Sihanouk in the 1960s. The small businesses that have been set up through government encouragement of "associations" of former restaurateurs and shopkeepers who managed to survive four years of forced exile on Khmer Rouge communes are enjoying greater success.

Urban drift presents a particularly touchy problem for the government.Phnom Penh has now swollen to nearly its prewar (1970) size of roughly half a million. Many city dwellers are either unemployed or poorly paid.

Although their rice and their housing is government subsidized, the average Phnom Penh civil servant receives a monthly wage of only 100 riels or $25. A bowl of noodles at a local food stall sells for nearly a dollar. By contrast, the predicab driver who shuttled me around the city said that even without my contribution, he was earning up to 20 riels a day.

The pedicab driver was, of course, one of the more fortunate ones. Thousands of city dwellers have no work at all. The government has now placed a ban on new arrivals, but wants to avoid sending people out of the city. Eviction would revive the bitter memories of April 1975, when the entire refugee-swollen population of more than a million was force- marched into the countryside.

While the general health of the Cambodian population has improved dramatically, foreign experts in Phnom Penh worry about the fragility of the recovery. A UNICEF survey in the hard-hit famine area of the northwest found last October that more than 80 percent of the people had reached a satisfactory nutritional level. Yet it is feared that the risk of disease among a weakened population remains high. The risk is compounded by appalling sanitation conditions, particularly in the city.

In Phnom Penh, filth, waste, and debris are still scattered everywhere. The handful of international relief organizations that deserve much of the credit for feeding this country last year have shifted their emphasis to health and developmental efforts.

In one project, Oxfam has tried to tackle the city's garbage. Unfortunately, the large rubbins bins bearing the name of the London- and Boston-based organization merely lie about on every streetcorner unemptied.

Vietnam continues after more than two years to exert dominant control in the political organization of the country. On each of my visits, Cambodians have complained often of the heavy political indoctrination imposed. Thousands of Cambodians have been sent off months on end to Moscow, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), or education centers near Phnom Penh. It is the only way to gain a position in the expanding government bureaucracy. Yet many Cambodians resent the six months away from family, occupied with six-day weeks of political lectures plus a day of manual labor.

As political organization increases and as the people's physical condition has improved, Cambodians are inevitably coming under more government pressure. A maze of new government rules and regulations has been churned out by an expanding communist bureaucracy.

Some people fear that after elections in March, the government will move toward repressing freedom of speech, movement, and economic activity.

Already the government has launched roundups of the anticommunist Serei along the Thai border.

On the other hand, contrary to expectations, I found no appreciable increase in resentment of the coninued Vietnamese military occupation. Although Vietnam is said to station 200,000 troops in Cambodia, they are less visible now than a year ago. The Vietnamese maintain their distance from the local population, rely on their own food supplies, have seperate barracks, and are forbidded to fraternize with local women. The reduced visibility has led to a reduction of tensions.

The general lack of hostility to the Vietnamese occupation can also be explained by the fact that whatever the Vietnamese are, they are better than their Khmer Rouge predecessors. The Heng Samrin government maintains a continuous propaganda campaign to insure that Cambodians do not forget the brutality of the Khmer Rouge. The memories are reinforced in political lectures.

The prospect of a new united front, with Norodom Sihanouk forming a resistance coalition with the ousted Khmer Rouge and Serei, raises more fear than hope among the Cambodians I talked to.

As Cambodia gets on its feet, the prospect of the return of the Khmer Rouge is simply chilling. There can be little support for resistance aimed at ending the Vietnamese occupation.

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