Despite the enormous volume of international aid being sent to the Heng Samrin government here, only tiny quantities of food are reaching famine-ravaged Cambodian villages. In contrast, civil servants and some private citizens in towns and cities appear to be getting adequate rations.
Foreign relief workers here are showing increasing impatience with the government, charging it has mismanaged donations and is quick to put political considerations before human needs.
The contrasts extend beyond food supplies. Although nominally socialist, Cambodia has, after a decade of destruction and war, a new elite of government workers and private traders who, by local standards, are already wealthy beyond dreams.
In the capital, officials drive brand-new sedans. The interiors of a few homes could pass almost for prewar affluence -- carved Chinese teak furniture, cabinets filled with display crockery, the occasional television set for faraway broadcasts from Vietnam.
In markets, one can buy suitcase-sized cassette decks. The young man guarding one such piece of merchandise said he sold one every two or three days. Digital watches, Thai beer and fancy cigarette lighters are all offered, paid for in gold that is tested and weighed by gold dealers set up for business in every marketplace.
This occurs in a country where orphanages serve only two meals a day because of insufficient shipments of food from the government, where many people own only one set of clothing and where electricity still has not been restored in one of Phnom Penh's main hospitals.
The government established 16 months ago by Vietnam asserts its intention to rein in the current anarchy, to get fields and factories producing again and to return people to their old jobs.
But for the moment, Cambodia is living on its capital -- gold and silver is vanishing into Thailand in exchange for luxuries -- and on the foreign dole. The International Red Cross and UNICEF plan to import more than 250,000 tons of foodstuffs this year to cover the country's shortfall. While the shortages continue, power and access to food have become synonymous.
Cambodian officials acknowledge the distribution has proceeded slowly and attribute the problem to lack of experience among laborers and planners. But they maintain things are gradually improving.
Interviewers by The Washington Post in nine randomly selected villages in seven provinces indicated those people not employed by the government receive at most about 4 1/2 pounds of rice a month (a normal diet requires 25 to 30 pounds). Foreign aid officials said these findings tallied with their own.
All the villages were located on major roads traveled frequently by rice convoys. In two villages, people said they still had rice stocks from the small crop harvested late last year. But in the other seven, people said they had eaten the last of the crop and were living day-to-day by fishing, bartering vegetables, and trapping small animals in the forest.
At one community in Kampot Province, people laughed cynically when asked about the convoys that carry rice from the port at Kompong Som past their homes daily.
"It is very difficult to get the government to send any of that rice here," an official explained. One month ago, he said, each person received one-half to one pound of rice.
Children were unable to attend a newly reopened school, a man volunteered, because they were needed for fishing.As in other parts of the country, children in this village did not show signs of starvation. But some had the red-tinted hair and bulging bellies -- the physical manifestations of malnutrition.
Government employes questioned during 15 days of travel in Cambodia all said they had received their full monthlyy rations -- 22 to 48 pounds -- depending on their rank. A few, however, complained of not getting full supplements owed them for spouses and children.
Many privately employed city residents also receive sizable allotments of food. For instance, a 34-year-old woman living on the capital's outskirts said she works fulltime selling fruit, but also collects 20 pounds of rice, milk powder and flour from the government.
Most aid workers in Phnom Penh dismiss as groundless allegations that Vietnam is diverting large quantities of relief rice for its own use. They say that the most likely explanation for the marginal rations in the villages is that the government gives the civil service and towns priority for what little food gets out of the warehouse.
Although Phnom Penh's 16-month-old government generally receives high marks for reopening schools and village clinics, foreign aid workers say that the imports of 1,100 trucks, as well as cranes, forklifts and barges beginning last fall has improved distribution only slightly.
Early this month, UNICEF's executive director, James Grant, and J. P. Hocke, the operations director of the International Red Cross, visited Phnom Penh to discuss ways to speed it up. UNICEF and the Red Cross direct the Western-financed relief effort in Cambodia.
The two agencies currently are lobbying donor countries for $260 million for a nine-month relief program that began April 1. The first phase, now underway, is to put 100,000 tons of foodstuffs in the provinces before monsoon rains make the roads impassable.
The agencies estimate Cambodia will need about 250,000 tons from them to get through 1980, with Eastern Bloc donors providing another 190,000 tons late this year. It is hoped that farmers will harvest a substantial rice crop, and open the way toward self-sufficiency in 1981.
But Western donors have raised questions about Phnom Penh's desire or ability to deliver food to people who need it.
Many relief specialists complain that Phnom Penh has consistently refused to behave as if there is a crisis.Evoking the worst scenario -- renewed famine this summer with masses of people descending on cities and the Thai border to find food their government has failed to give them -- has no effect in official circles.
"They say, 'what can be worse than what we've been through?'" said one foreigner. "You can't threaten them with the apocalypse tomorrow."
In private conversations, aid workers tell stories that suggest the current Cambodian government is as disorganized as many of its predecessors. Fleets of new trucks drive around empty; entire shipments of farm equipment are buried beneath other supplies piling up in warehouses; foreigners threaten to send newly arrived machinery back if it is not promptly moved from the port.
Frequent public holidays and good-Cross and UNICEF began their pro-week of April 13, civil servants got Monday and Tuesday off for the Cambodian New Year, and Thursday off to celebrate the fall of Phnom Penh in 1975. Many offices were understaffed on Wednesday and Friday as well.
The Red Cross, UNICEF and private agencies like Oxfam and World Vision, are viewed as representing governments that refuse to recognize Heng Samrin's administration and thus are subject to additional political constraints. Deep mistrust of the United States and Europe by Phnom Penh's Vietnamese "advisers," has blocked programs and procedures that would seem logical from a humanitarian or financial point of view. Some major examples:
Medical teams. Last year Phnom Penh turned down a fully equipped French hospital ship at a time when it was publicity stating the Khmer Rouge had killed all but 50 of Cambodia's own doctors and destroyed most of its hospitals. The government apparently was not anxious to increase the number of Westerners in Cambodia.
The "land bridge" from Thailand. Phnom Penh currently is doing nothing to stop thousands of oxcarts from picking up seed and rice at the Thai border. But it refuses to allow an official and more efficient link by truck with Thailand, apparently because the Thais continue to recognize the Khmer Rouge government.
The Bangkok-Phnom Penh air route. Red Cross planes flying from Bangkok are required to cover about twice the distance. They follow the Cambodian coast to Vietnam, and then head for Phom Penh. For months the Red Cross had sought a shorter route to save time and fuel. They were told the circuitous route is the only one with complete radar coverage. Although the Red Cross offered to provide new radar equipment, the idea was not accepted by the Heng Samrin government.
The agencies would also like larger staffs in Phnom Penh and day-to-day working committees with the government.
Heng Samrin officials maintain some of these requests go beyond principles agreed upon when Red Cross and UNICEF began their programs last year.
Despite the problems of working in Phnom Penh, the relief groups do not talk of pulling out. Although aid can reach bits of the country from the Thai border, most of Cambodia's territory and people are controlled from the capital. Working with Heng Samrin, they say, is still the best way to get aid to the countryside.