Heavy rains had turned everything to mud, and the 30,000 Cambodians camped in Thailand's newest refugee center were struggling to survive -- a battle that many still were losing.

The rains were the latest hardship to be endured by the Cambodian refugees who began entering Thailand by the thousands three weeks ago.

Amid the streams and puddles left by the downpour, women spread out clothes and blankets to dry on flimsy stick-and-plastic shelters that had collapsed. Babies were bathed and cooking fires lit. People moved awkwardly around pools of water and across the slippery trails that crisscross the Sa Kaew camp.

After months of indescribable deprivations, at least there was rice to eat. Disease and malnutrition, however, continue to kill dozens of people in the camp every day.

"We've stopped counting," a U.S. Embassy employe replied when asked how many had died that day. Officials later said the toll was 27 that day as of 5 p.m. The bodies were carted away for burial at a nearby Buddhist temple.

One man of about 25 sought out foreigners and led them to his tent, where a body lay covered by a worn checkered cloth. He pulled it back to reveal the face of a young woman, eyes opened wide in death.

The dead woman was his wife, he explained. She had succumbed to fever -- probably malaria -- during the night.

"They die like this every day," said another man looking on from a few feet way. "Pretty soon there won't be any Cambodians left at all."

A cluster of rectangular tents had been erected at one corner of the camp as a hospital. Foreign doctors moved among perhaps a thousand sick who lay shoulder to shoulder on mats. Most were malaria casses, a European doctor said. Understaffing was serious: earlier a diplomat's wife who had come as a volunteer was taught how to give injections.

Meanwhile, a haphazard collection of foreign relief workers, Thai officials and soldiers, nuns and volunteers from foreign embassies in Bangkok continued an often chaotic effort to make the Sa Kaew camp -- just 15 acres of dense scrubland a week ago -- fit for human habitation.

Bulldozers pushed away tangled vegetation to clear sites for tents, in which many refugees are ultimately to be housed. Teams of Thai laborers hired with United Nations funds hefted bulky water tanks toward a latrine at the camp's western edge.

Amenities like the water tanks were quickly abused: a Thai relief worker complained that people camped close to them took baths incessantly and used up the water. Those living far away from the tanks often got nothing.

Distribution of food, however, appeared to be equitable. The improved diet has helped at least some people, wiping out much of the lethargy so evident among the Cambodians when they first arrived in Thailand.

At Sa Kaew, a few children have even begun to behave like children again. They crowded close, watching the bulldozers at work and climbed on them when they were parked. Elsewhere, children blocked a major thoroughfare in the camp with a game that tested their skill pitching rubber bands into squares scratched in the dirt.

Sa Kaew's people were brought from border encampments. It is the first of three refugee centers that the Thai government plans to build for the flood of new entries from Cambodia. In addition, there is to be a "national refugee center" with room for 300,000 people built further south.

The Thai supreme command recently told refugee agencies there were currently 180,000 people massed on both sides of the border whom it expected to move to these camps, sources said. More arrivals are expected as Vietnamese troops supporting the Heng Samrin government move against remnants of the Khmer Rouge Army and anti-communist Free Khmer guerrillas.

The refugees will receive adequate food, shelter and medical care, the Thai government has promised. Though details have not been worked out, refugee agencies believe people will be allowed to leave the camps to resettle in third countries. Those not interested in resettlement will stay in Thai camps until Cambodia is peaceful enough to return.

How many would seek resettlement, however, is another question. Most of Sa Kaew's people came from a Khmer Rouge enclave in the Phnom Malai hills. Political cadress traveled with them and appear to be trying to enforce Khmer Rouge social organization and concepts of loyalty to the war against the Vietnamese.

One senior cadre found inspecting the hospital tents (three men who appeared to be aides hovered behind him) offered the now-familiar claim that once the Vietnamese Army backing Heng Samrin had withdrawn everyone in the camp would return to Cambodia.