The 300 children of Battambang Province's orphange eat only twice a day. The first meal, rice topped with some fish, comes in late morning after four hours of schooling for the older children.

Then at 5 p.m. after a nap, work in vegetable gardens and some play, they sit down to more rice and fish.

It is life reduced to the bare essentials. Children sleep shoulder-to-shoulder on straw mats, then line up like little soldiers in the morning for calisthenics and roll call. Though the orphanage was once a high school, the children sit on the floor in all but one classroom.

Despite the hardships, there are few tears at Battambang Orphanage. Most of the children lost their parents years ago and, on the surface at least, have accepted life without them. "They are happy in their own fasion," says Un Saroeun, 41, a vibrant grey-haired woman who shows visitors around.

"They don't think much of the future. For the time being they have food to eat and they are not sick."

Children follow Saroeun like the pied piper. She is clearly a favorite, stooping in the corridor to listen to a child's whispered request for a favor. But there are always too many children for the time available.

The past 10 years in Cambodia have left an entire generation of young people accustomed to violence and death. In this orphanage, tales of lost parents and forced labor are recounted in tones American children would use to tell of the previous day's schoolwork.

There is 15-year-old Thang Than. His life was last close to normal in 1975, the year the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh and sent families to work in rural communes. Than was split up from his parents and moved to a children's collective outside Phnom Penh.

The Khmer Rouge set up a center for children like Than in a deserted village in the apparent hope of indoctrinating from infancy a corps of men and women willing to accept orders without question and dedicate their lives to the revolution.

Than estimates that his collective had 300 children.In the daytime, they worked in the fields or dug irrigation canals and built dikes. There was no formal schooling, although Pol Pot's cadre did drill them in politics.

"Some children got sick. Some children died," Than recalled matter-of-factly, while talking with me in the director's office."I wasn't happy during the Pol Pot years. I was forced to work so hard."

Than lived under the Khmer Rouge nine months longer than most Cambodians.

When Vietnamese troops approached his collective in January 1979, Khmer Rouge cadre evacuated the children to a mountain stronghold where they stayed until the Khmer Rouge soldiers there surrendered in September.

Than traveled toward Phnom Penh seeking his family. He found his father outside the city but learned that his mother had not survived. Moreover, Than's father apparently was not interested in taking back his son and left for his home village leaving Than behind. Local authorities sent the boy to the orphanage in Battambang.

Than is clearly used to obeying orders. He answers questions politely and sits still when attention shifts away from him. He seems unable to take hold of his own life.

He is asked, for instance, what he would like to be when he leaves the orphanage. He cannot respond. "Factory worker? Farmer? Government official?" prompts Saroeun. Still nothing. "He has no idea," she says with resignation.

The Vietnamese-sponsored Heng Samrin government has created orphanages like this one all over the country. In Phnom Penh, orphans live in former Catholic schools in Kompong Thom Province, and in former quarters and warehouse of a merchant family.

No one knows how many orphans there are. But among the 150,000 Cambodian refugees in U.N.-sponsored camps in Thailand, there are about 2,000 "unaccompanied minors," official jargon for children who appear to have no parents. That figure represents just under 2 percent of the refugee population.

Foreign refugee workers feel that the orphanage children as a group eat better than other children in Cambodia. Recent surveys, for instance, indicated that some 40 percent of all children in Phnom Penh were inadequately nourished.

"Kids in orphanages are becoming a privileged class," said one relief official. That children eating two meals a day can be called privileged is a guage of how low living standards have dropped in Cambodia.

And the new Regime, like the Khmer Rouge before it, is not above using the children for political ends.

In Battambang there are children who have returned from Vietnam after special five-month courses in politics, sports and Vietnamese language.

One boy interviewed at the orphanage said that after Vietnamese troops captured his village early last year, they selected him and 40 other orphans found in the area for training at a camp near Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon).

Now back in Cambodia, he is frequently visited by soldiers from the local Vietnamese garrison, who speak the language with him and kid him if his hair gets too long. Perhaps not by accident, the boy is charged with overseeing other children at the orphanage.

Hanoi apparently plants to groom boys like this one for important posts in the government and army it is building in Cambodia.

But for most children the future is far less certain. They will stay at the orphanage until age 18, then be sent out to jobs wherever they are needed.