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Indochina: success in war; hunger in peace

''In wartime we had enough to eat and we were successful; in peace we are hungry and failing.''

That admission by Vietnamese Communist Party spokesman Hoang Tung tells much of what lies behind the continuing economic stagnation of communist Indochina.

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The battle for peaceful reconstruction is far from won -- some seven years after communist victory in southern Vietnam, Kampuchea (Cambodia), and Laos. Indochina's communists drove the world's greatest military power from their shores. Despite their boldness and pride, they have yet to show they can win the peace.

Indeed, it is the legacy of three decades of war, together with an inadequate effort to build a Vietnamese blend of Soviet- and Chinese-style communism, that has so seriously set back the area.

Thousands of refugees who have fled by boat from Vietnam, and across the border into Thailand from Laos and Kampuchea, testify to Spartan poverty and food shortages they left behind.

Foreign residents in Indochina tell of malnutrition, inefficiency, industrial breakdown, and shortage of trained personnel. Vietnam's rulers themselves call for a war against official corruption.

Factory closings, production cutbacks, and shortages of fuel and fertilizer have all cut Vietnam's exports and increased its imports. The result: a chronic shortage of foreign exchange that hampers Vietnam's effort to pay back its $3 billion debt to the Soviet Union.

For more than 30 years, war has been a fact of life for Vietnam, Laos, and Kampuchea. A Darwinian process of ''natural selection'' has meant that those who finally won power had skills better adapted for waging war than for waging peace.

So far the bid for reconstruction has been unable to dilute doctrinaire socialism with sufficient flexibility. Attempted solutions have sometimes become part of the problem.

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Massive United States bombing in Vietnam, Laos, and Kampuchea disrupted communist military operations. But craters, unexploded bombs, and defoliants have also disrupted agriculture. Thousands of formerly self-sufficient peasants fled the bombs and machine-gun fire that devastated their once-fertile family fields. They flocked to cities like Saigon, and Vientiane, where US aid financed a capitalist ''paradise'' of imported foods and consumer goods. By the time of the communist victories in 1975, the aid was cut off, and the economies of these urban meccas collapsed.

During the ''American war,'' North Vietnam's economy suffered from bombing attacks and a priority on war production that limited long-term industrial growth useful in peacetime.

The results were cruelest in Kampuchea. The Khmer Rouge drove hundreds of thousands from city to countryside. Millions were killed or died from illness, further weakening the economic base. Even after the Vietnamese invasion installed a more humane (if subservient) government in 1979, famine and exodus continued to reduce the number of skilled and educated people, who are necessary for economic reconstruction. The country was left with a skeletal administration.

Vietnam's foreign policies and the policies of its neighbors have prolonged the military burden, which slows economic reconstruction. Vietnam's occupation of Kampuchea with nearly 200,000 troops, who continue to fight China-backed Khmer Rouge guerrillas, drains Hanoi's economy.

The possibility of a repeat of the 1979 Chinese invasion of Vietnam requires expensive military preparations on Vietnam's northern border. Rifts with China and the US, as well as with the noncommunist nations of Southeast Asia, make Vietnam economically dependent on Soviet economic aid and technical assistance. Despite reported disagreements with the Soviets, this may reduce Vietnam's capacity for economic experimentation.

Vietnam's postwar insistence on rapidly integrating its north and south has also caused serious economic losses. Despite war damage, massive US aid left a legacy of prosperity in the south. By 1974, agriculture in the south had achieved substantial success, partly because of effective land reform, notes Gerard Mare, a researcher of Vietnam's agricultural policy at the University of California, Berkeley. But the north's efforts to quickly collectivize southern agriculture disrupted production. Efforts to nationalize businesses had similar results.

In recent years both Vietnam and Vietnam-aligned Laos have backed away from rapid and thorough collectivization of agriculture and nationalization of business. Some form of private production has been found necessary to provide incentives for increased production. In Kampuchea, also, limited private enterprise is tolerated to hasten recovery.

But Vietnam still affirms its intent to push agricultural collectivization in the south, even as it experiments with looser collectivization in the north.

The communist leaders of Indochina both inherited and helped create a shortage of trained leadership for economic reconstruction. The move to rapidly collectivize required skilled officials: Few could be found among the former guerrillas.

War, assassinations, and postwar executions eliminated many qualified people. In southern Vietnam, communist guerrillas assassinated village leaders. The American-sponsored Phoenix assassination program killed many potential communist officials.

Northern communists often distrusted southern communists and were sometimes reluctant to give them power. So northerners often took over in the south. Their arrogance and corruption caused resentment and lack of cooperation by southerners. This further undermined economic efficiency.

To fill the leadership vacuum, communist leaders have recruited new party members. They have used Soviet and Eastern European advisers, as well as Vietnamese advisers in Laos and Kampuchea. They have sent a new generation of students for crash-training in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

The rush for new administrators appears to be a major cause of inefficiency and corruption, as unqualified opportunists exploited their new positions. The communist leadership itself frequently stressed the problem. Weeding out ''degenerate'' Communist Party members began in 1980.

The older, skilled generation, including the merchants who prospered under former governments, did not make ideal Marxists. Clampdowns on the south's black market and on the shopkeepers of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) meant that the business class saw little future under socialism. Many became refugees, and smuggled their gold bars and other wealth out of the country.

Similarly, the communist victory in the south meant prison for thousands of military and government officers and politicians. Their service under the old regime left them labeled as unreliable. Others who might have been useful decided to become refugees after concluding their families faced a bleak future under communism. As the 1979 war with China neared, Vietnam revived the deeply rooted hostility toward Chinese living in Vietnam. The Chinese, many of whom were experienced merchants, were seen as possible agents for China and asked to leave.

A rather different exodus could also flow from the government's reported decision to earn foreign exchange by sending to the Soviet Union 500,000 Vietnamese workers from now until 1985. Vietnamese dissidents charge the program aims at ridding the country of anticommunists, independent-minded southern communists, and party members suspected of pro-Chinese sympathies.

Aware of the many problems, Vietnam's leaders have proposed reforms. In late March the Fifth Communist Party Congress announced that large industrial projects will be downplayed in favor of medium- and small-scale enterprises. Vietnam will now focus on agriculture, and other basic needs, such as clothing and housing.

Vietnam has often stressed the need to increase production by decentralizing government planning and administration and allowing a limited free market. In 1980, a program began to give added incentives to the farming ''household.'' It let farmers sell more produce on the free market at higher prices than could be obtained on the state-controlled market.

But the degree of actual implementation of such reforms is uncertain, notes Mr. Mare. Lower-level officials may favor reform, but their superiors may be cautious out of concern about side effects such as inflation.

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