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Kampuchean Catch-22: progress may force aid cutoff

After years of war, repression, famine, and mass executions, Kampuchea seems to be getting back on its feet. Ironically, this qualified success threatens future aid to Kampuchea (formerly Cambodia), say American and international relief officials.

Gone are the killings and forced marches ordered by the Pol Pot government from 1975 to the Vietnamese invasion of 1978. Increased rice production, nearly occupation troops have dispelled the threat of starvation.

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The improved, if precarious, food situation has revived the debate over how to balance the humanitarian case for continued aid with the political objection that more aid subsidizes Vietnam's occupation of Kampuchea and implies recognition of the Vietnam-backed government in the capital, Phnom Penh.

Some United Nations aid is expected to continue. But in the absence so far of new pledges for 1983, such support officially ended Dec. 1, notes one UN official. Some countries, especially from Scandinavia, are expected to pledge small amounts later this year for aid under UN auspices. The United States, non-Communist Southeast Asia, China, and nations of the European Community oppose more aid. One UN source maintains he would be ''surprised'' if international donations through the Phnom Penh government reach $10 million in 1983, compared to a 1982 figure of $16 million.

The question now is just how much more, if anything, can or should be done to improve Kampuchea's agriculture, education, and small industry so as to help move the country beyond a level of precarious survival.

The US government appears to have already decided. Now that the food emergency is over, there is a danger that aid distributed through UN channels to the Phnom Penh government will increasingly go for ''development'' rather than ''relief,'' notes a State Department source.

This would reward Vietnam for its invasion of Kampuchea and help finance and strengthen the Vietnamese-backed Phnom Penh government, he said. US officials say they do not want to send the ''wrong signal'' to Vietnam.

The US government (which contributed about a third of a total of $60 million in 1982 international aid for Kampuchea, including money through the Phnom Penh government and informal funds across the border) thus anticipates no need for new 1983 commitments for aid to be distributed through the Phnom Penh government. But it will continue more direct aid across the Thailand-Kampuchean border to dislocated persons in western Kampuchea.

Some aid officials argue this cross-border aid weakens Kampuchean agriculture by luring villagers toward the border and away from their fields. But a humanitarian need is generally conceded, although there is a widespread conclusion that the US and Thailand favor this route partly because it helps supply and strengthen the anti-Vietnamese guerrilla coalition headed by Prince Norodom Sihanouk, Son Sann, and leaders of the ousted Pol Pot forces. These forces sporadically fight the Vietnamese in Western Kampuchea.

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One international aid official maintains that Kampuchea is probably the only case in which emergency aid appears close to ending without moving from the ''relief'' to the intermediate ''rehabilitation'' phase.

All governments recognized by the UN are entitled to developmental aid under rules developed from the UN charter, one international relief official notes. But the Vietnam-backed Phnom Penh government does not qualify because the UN General Assembly has refused to recognize the Phnom Penh government and has left the former Pol Pot government with Kampuchea's UN seat. Unrecognized governments can be denied development aid under UN rules.

Kampuchea's gradual recovery has sharpened differences between the US government and private American aid agencies. Under what is known as the ''trading with the enemy act,'' the US has granted licenses for aid to Kampuchea and Vietnam for ''relief,'' as opposed to ''development'' purposes. The State Department indicates that with the emergency over, it will enforce this distinction more strictly, thus phasing out the more relaxed standards allowed for Kampuchea during the food emergency.

This tightening up has already begun, according to some private relief agencies. Says a State Department source, ''We just approved private aid for a rice-processing project in Kampuchea. But in a few months, if the rice crop is good, we may not approve another one.''

Joel Charny, Southeast Asia projects officer for Oxfam America, which has just received US approval to supply bearings to improve a rice mill in the Kampuchean town of Battambang, says the State Department has told him that this approval may be the last of its kind.

Officials at private aid agencies such as the American Friends Service Committee, World Vision, Church World Service, Operation California, Oxfam America, and the relief agency of the Mennonite Church say they will continue their Kampuchean relief. Some say they will test what they see as a government attempt to make private humanitarian aid groups instruments of US foreign policy.

Spokespersons for several private aid groups reject the distinction between ''relief'' and ''development.'' They argue Kampuchea is ''brittle'' because it lacks food reserves to protect against famine. It also lacks exports to trade for imports such as fuel, medicine, and fertilizer, they argue.

Aid supporters cite a United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization report that projects a 100-ton rice deficit this year. It concluded there is a moderate-to-severe malnutrition in many villages and provinces, with a majority of children under age 12 thus affected. It concluded that 32 thousand tons of rice, with 28 thousand tons going to the five most affected provinces, might help.

Some aid workers concede this does not make Kampuchea any more needy than a number of other underdeveloped countries. But they say it is premature to cross Kampuchea off the needy list.

A State Department source notes there is always the possibility of a future food emergency. He says that is why the US and other governments will keep ''machinery in place'' to respond if needed.

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