Damaged by 10 years of warfare and neglect, the ancient docks of Phnom Penh have sprung back to a busy life, in the last three months. Thousands of tons of relief food have been shipped up the Mekong River and laboriously unloaded, often by hand, and placed in dilapidated warehouses in the still eerily empty Cambodian capital.
Last week, two of the port's three spindly wooden piers collapsed, shutting off food flow for the foreseeable future. The accident has come at a crucial time for a $500 million international relief effort that seems at times to be resting on similarly uncertain foundations.
The Cambodia relief operation is now engulfed in several crises. Unless they are resolved immediately they threaten to undo all that international aid has so far achieved in these areas:
Seed. Unless 30,000 tons of rice seed is purchased, shipped to Cambodia and distributed to village level in the next two months, the 1980 wet season crop will not be planted. Last year's cycle of famine will recur, and huge international food shipments will be needed at least until the end of 1981. If it is possible to imagine, the condition of the people will be even more wretched than it is today.
Money. Unless the United Nations Children's Fund can raise another $80 million at once its whole program -- not just rice seed -- will be threatened. U.N. Secretary General Kurt Waldheim has called a meeting of potential donor countries for next Wednesday at the United Nations to raise $260 million to keep the U.N. program going. So far, little has been pledged.
Politics. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan -- and U.S. reaction -- have made moves toward any political compromise by any of the parties more difficult still. You without compromise the very best the international relief effort can do is to keep Cambodia teetering on the brink of disaster.
At the present moment, the odds are extremely high that none of these overlapping races against time will be won. Bureaucratic inefficiency has helped slow the seed effort. Budget cutbacks and Western economic malaise appear to doom the drive for more money. And the political conflict shows no sign of abating.
That more tragedy will follow is a bitter truth for Cambodians. But it will weigh heavily also on a world that will have shown that it did not learn enough from the last year of disaster to find ways to halt the surffering now.
This series has sought to trace the humanitarian and political responses of the international community to the Cambodian tragedy, one of the great man-made disasters of our time.
In recent months, the plight of Cambodia has stirred emotions and action across the world. But a genuine outpouring of humanitarian concern has been constantly limited by political and bureaucratic constraints.
Inevitably the international system's response has been ad hoc -- as it must be to any emergency. It has been well-intentioned in many respects, inadequate in others. International ciavil servants have careers to promote and parishes to protect. They also have to work within rules laid down by governments with different priorities.
In the villages of central Cambodia, another rice crop -- the small dry-season crop planted in the fall and due to be harvested now -- has failed. There is now a race against time to get a wet season crop planted before the monsoon inundates the land in May and June.
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) had planned to ship 30,000 tons of rice seed into Cambodia early this year. The U.N. agency planned to provide seed for a million acres of land in six provinces. In the 1960s, when Cambodia exported a rice surplus, 3 million acres were planted.
Every ton of seed, properly planted and harvested, provides six to 10 tons of rice. The FAO plan would give Cambodia a 200,000-ton harvest by the end of 1980. That seemed a realistic, and crucial, target for Cambodia when FAO began planning its effort six months ago.
But now, the organization says it has not even purchased large quantities of seed, let alone shipped it. The explanation is that FAO is short of funds and that the appropriate seed is in woefully short supply.
Thus far, FAO has bought just 3,000 tons of seed in the Philippines and with the private British relief agency Oxfam is negotiating for another 15,000 tons in Thailand. The Thai government still has not granted an export license.
The arithmetic is this: only a fifth of the normal crop is to be planted this wet season; 30,000 tons of seed have to be found, bought officially exported and either pushed across the border or shipped to Cambodia, unloaded, processed through the primitive distribution system and rushed out to farmers -- in six to eight weeks. It could still just be done. But not at the present rate of progress.
Fertilizer and farming equipment are also badly needed. Some has been shipped in by the international relief plan and Oxfam. More is required.
At the same time more relief food than ever is urgently needed for the existing emergency. If rice seed alone is shipped to starving villages, it will be eaten, not planted. There are already reports of seed being eaten in villages. In the week this series has been running, U.S. Embassy officials along the border have been reporting to Washington worse stories of starvation. The breathing space has gone.
Back in January the International Committee of the Red Cross and UNICEF had planned to ship 200,000 tons of food into Cambodia this year. Latest reports from the field are that at least 230,000 tons will be needed -- an increase of 15 percent.
Even if all these supplies can be bought and shipped in time, it looks unlikely that they can be landed and distributed. Even before the collapse of the Phnom Penh dock, the logistics of the country were under severe strain.
Warehouses at the port of Kompong Som are again clogged up. The Soviets have resumed large shipments; their ambassador in Phenom Penh has told UNICEF that Moscow will send 130,000 tons of food this year. (Until now the State Department estimates that the Soviets have sent about 67,000 tons, as against 59,000 tons from the West. The Heng Samrin regime says more -- 186,000 tons from the socialist bloc.)
The international organizations are desperately looking for new distribution routes. These include trucks from the port of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and more use of river barges up the Mekong and Tonle Sap in Cambodia. The Heng Samrin government still refuses to allow a formal "land bridge" by either road or rail from Thailand or direct flights from Bangkok to provincial Cambodian airports.
Altogether, the outlook for this year's wet season crop is gloomy. One senior UNICEF official puts it at "less than 50-50." This means food dependence, and an expensive international aid program until at least Christmas 1981. By then the cost will be close to $1 billion.
And yet money is already running out. The international organizations have spent $205.5 million on Cambodian relief since September. The United States has been the largest contributor, providing $72 million. Waldheim is now seeking a further $262 million through the end of 1980. Financial cutbacks in the United States and elsewhere are combining with irritation over the distribution problems to make donor countries reluctant to be very generous.
The United States contributions is now hostage to the budget cuts decreed by President Carter and to the battle over the foreign aid bill in Congress. State Department officials say they still have no idea how much the United States will be able to pledge to the new appeal, but one said there is a serious danger it will only be "peanuts". Without a U.S. contribution at least as generous as before, the aid program could easily collapse.
That is true in part because the State Department has played a major moral as well as financial role in the relief effort. U.S. Ambassador to Thailand Morton Abramowitz was among the first officials anywhere to warm of impending famine.
Rosalynn Carter has attached her own and the president's prestige to the Cambodia effort, although some White House staff members -- most particularly national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski -- are widely thought be relief officials to have leaked negative and exaggerated reports on Soviet and Vietnamese obstructions as a way to move American policy closer to the more hard-line Chinese policy on Cambodia.
The impact of the "China card" effort and of the budget cuts on the relief effort is not yet clear. But officials at the State Department have been warning voluntary agencies that the United States may not still be able to take 14,000 refugees a month in fiscal 1981, despite President Carter's previous commitment. Any reduction in the number of refugees coming to the United States would seriously undercut Thai willingness to allow refugees to stay.
Over all the difficulties of seed procurement, distribution and finance loom the political problems. Without their solution the relief effort will continue to be obstructed -- by all sides. And conversely, until and unless the political problems are solved, the relief effort will have to continue.
Ten years after the North Vietnamese, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger "drew Cambodia into war, games are still being played with the country. The principle player's inside Cambodia are:
The Hemg Samrin government installed in Phom Penh by the Vietnamese after Hanoi's invasion 14 months ago. It is still utterly dependent on Vietnam -- for example, the only telepone system is the Vietnamese Army line.
Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge. Reduced to at most 25,000 troops in the west and northeast, the fear of their return is a principal reason for some Cambodian tolerance of the Vietnamese occupation. The Khmer Rouge are mounting an extraordinary diplomatic campaign to capitalize on the anti-sovietism which has followed Afghanistan -- including requests to "forget the past" made at press conferences in luxurious jungle headquarters -- but they are growing weaker, despite support from China through Thailand. Still, however, they are tying down the Vietnamese.
The Khmer Serei. The only serious group is Son Sann's Khmer People's National Liberation Front. Son Sann's army is run by Dien Del, one of the most effective commanders in Lon Nol's army from 1970-75. Son Sann is recruiting in the refugee camps in Thailand and has been given around $1 million by China. The United States is giving, at the very least, tacit support to his group.
The deposed Cambodian leader, Prince Norodom sihanouk, is now touring the West arguing that he, and only he, can bring peace. Like the pope, Sihanouk does not have many divisions and he has petulant refused to align himself with Son Sann.
It is not easy to imagine the Vietnamese, who still have 200,000 troops in Cambodia, and their principal allies, the Soviets, accepting the international conference that Sihanouk says must be called to resolve the Cambodian conflict. Hanoi says the situation in Cambodia is "irreversible." c
But the war is costing the Soviet Union $2 million a day. Vietnam's own economy is in shambles and it faces a 1980 food deficit of its own of at least 2 million tons. Until now the Soviet Union has sent food aid to Vietnam; this year, after the U.S. cutback of grain, Moscow has told Hanoi that no such aid will be available.
For China, the Cambodian war costs almost nothing to sustain. It ties down Vietnamese troops and bleeds the military and economic force of Hanoi. Peking seems prepared "to fight to the last Cambodian" by supporting the Khmer Rouge and other guerrilla resistance indefinitely. Unlike the Soviet Union, China has not sent any humanitarian aid to Cambodia.
Whether the new understanding between Peking and Washington extends to Cambodia is one of the keys to a resolution of the crisis of Southeast Asia.
One statement of the U.S. position was given in a background briefing to reporters in Bangkok by a U.S. official who accompanied Defense Secretary Harold Brown to Peking in January: "The U.S. shares common interests with China on Indochina," the official said. "That is to dilute the Soviet influence in Indochina and get the Vietnamese out of Cambodia. China's objective is to ensure maximum Khmer resistance, not necessarily only through the Khmer Rouge. They are looking to a lifespan of three to five years. It is in U.S. interests to see a neutral and independent Cambodia."
But he added that the United States understood that "any political settlement would have to take into account vietnamese interests. That is that a government in Cambodia should not be hostile to Vietnam." That is not the Chinese position.
The other U.S. officials have said that the United States seeks a compromise and would willingly go to a conference if only others would attend. But that China, Vietnam and the Soviet Union show no sign of doing so.
A new international conference as such is not essential for Cambodia. Compromise is. There are formulas. The essential elements seem to include the following:
The West must recognize that Vietnam is the dominant power in Indochina by reason of numbers alone. (51 million Vietnamese, 3 million Lao, 5 to 6 million Cambodians.) Vietnam has legitimate security interests in Cambodia. Sihanouk understood that in the 1960s. His successors, Lon Nol and Pol Pot did not; and their assessments led to disaster.
If the Vietnamese were ever to withdraw some or all their troops, it would probably only be if a friendly govenment in Phnom Penh were guarnateed. One scenario is a broadening of the Heng Samrin government to include Son Sann and other independent politicians. Secret contacts are already rumored. A grand coalition could not include the Khmer Rouge, whose behavior has anyway surely forfeited them any right to return to power.
Whether or not the Vietnamese would tolerate the return of Sihanouk to Phnom Penh is not clear. But he is probably the only figure, battered though he is, whose presence there could persuade large numbers of refugees to return of their own free will to Cambodia.
As an incentive to the Vietnamese the West and Japan should offer a long-term relief and rehabilitation plan for all Indochina. And the United States could offer normalization of relations as part of the conference.
Such suggestions may seem utopian. But the overwhelming impression gained in a thorough examination of the problems of Cambodia today is that the only alternative to an imaginative political leap is a dismal downward spiral.
That leap could be made first by the United States and by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations taking a new "initiative" toward Hanoi. If ASEAN leads, the West, particularly the United States, would have to follow.
Every age has it symbols of horror. The destruction of Cambodia is symbolic of our own time. There are other contemporary disasters -- in East Timor and Ethiopia to name but two. But for complex reasons -- political emotional and merely logistical -- cambodia has recently attracted more attention.
Precisely because of the concern it has belatedly aroused. Cambodia is now a vital test: When there is worldwide consensus that a human disaster has occurred, is occurring, and will, unless actively prevented, continue to occur is it possible for nations to agree that it must be prevented?
Or will short-term, often hypothetical political concerns condemn not only Cambodians to death today but also the rest of mankind to be seen in history as accessories to another great crime of this century?
That is the issue. If the community of nations does not have the political will to save Cambodia, then that community cannot be confident of having the will, ultimately, to save itself.