Cambodia's conflicting programs to aid children and their mothers, the most vulnerable victims of this country's series of tragedies, provide a revealing case study of how the politics of colonization are thwarting Cambodia's recovery.

As in most Asian countries, children come first here. After witnessing innumerable scenes of mothers sacrificing for their young, a foreign expert said: "This is the strongest bonding between mother and child I have ever seen . . . . I do not believe there has been a single case, even a vague suggestion, of child abuse here."

But Cambodia's traditional love and respect for children have proved insufficient in the face of problems imposed by the Vietnamese occupation. Foreign and Cambodian professionals in the health field are finding much of their work undermined by countervailing requirements for turning Cambodia into a loyal colony.

The political group charged with helping mothers and children is Cambodia's Women's Association, one of three mass organizations whose main function is recruiting the population into the political system and ultimately into the revived Communist Party here.

Ros Sery, an official of the Women's Association, said women were the country's most desperate population group when Pol Pot was overthrown four years ago.

"Because of the mass murders under Pol Pot, the population is now 65 percent women and half of those are widowed," she said.

But when asked what her association was doing to help these women and mothers, Sery described political programs. She said the association was trying to ensure that women contributed to increasing production, particularly rice cultivation, and was conducting propaganda to persuade Cambodians to stop fighting against the government.

Two years ago the association declared that malnutrition is a problem of the past, and it has not mounted any educational programs to help mothers provide better nutrition for their children.

Moreover, the government has decided the country needs more babies. So the Women's Association now appeals to women to have as many babies as possible.

"We do not favor birth control or family planning because there is a shortage of population after Pol Pot. We encourage women to have as many babies as they can," Sery said.

Dr. Ang Sarun, the official of the Ministry of Public Health in charge of the protection of mothers and children, is concerned that the government she serves encourages a high birth rate and pretends there is no malnutrition.

"Please make an appeal for me," the doctor said. "Our birth rate is at least 5 percent and the infant mortality rate--I don't have figures, how could I?--is extremely high. This is urgent. We need help."

Sarun was one of Cambodia's first woman doctors. She practiced pediatrics for 20 years, until the Pol Pot government. She survived and decided to stay here, where she said she feels she is needed.

"There has always been a high percentage of malnutrition in this country since Pol Pot," she said. "Until 1981 most of it was because of Pol Pot's policies. Now it is the fault of three problems: poor harvests in specific localities, this year in Kompong Som and Kompong Thom; the fact that a national transportation system doesn't exist and the few trucks we have are not transporting essential goods; and the poor health, still, of many of our people."

In a recent, controversial report, a team from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) found that more than half of Cambodia's young suffer moderate to severe malnutrition. The FAO team visited seven Cambodian provinces and found the diet of the children and their families poor.

"They have two meals a day of insufficient rice and some soup," the report said, adding that they seldom eat "meat, chicken, eggs, beans, oil, sweet potatoes, etc., because these foods are not available, and they cannot afford to buy them."

The two groups of children suffering the most severe malnutrition were those just off breast-feeding--the children aged 1 to 3--and those over 6 who had yet to recover from the misery of the Pol Pot era. Another survey is under way by a UNICEF team that Dr. Sarun has been aiding, and she said the incomplete findings buttress the FAO report--"more than 50 percent malnutrition among the young."

Another problem is Phnom Penh's water supply.

"We don't even have chlorine for our water. Hygiene is impossible in this situation. Yes, the Soviet Union promised to fix our water system but now they say, maybe they can begin in 1990."

Independent experts support Dr. Sarun's complaints. The city's water supply has not been treated with sediments in years. The supply of chlorine ran out last year and was supplemented by emergency donations from international and private relief organizations.

"Phnom Penh may look better to some eyes but underneath it is a disaster," said one expert. "It's hard to say which kills off the children--the miserable malnutrition or the abysmal sanitation."

The filthy water spreads diarrhea among the children. They dehydrate, and their nutrition level is already low so they succumb to disease easily.

Preventive health programs do not exist here.

"In January we should be spraying against the mosquitoes that spread malaria but nothing was done because we don't have the people or the equipment," said Dr. Sarun. "Now how many children will die this spring?"

There have been successes: the school system has been restored after Pol Pot dismantled it and put the small children to work in the fields, factories and the Army. Dr. Sarun believes malnutrition is not as bad as it once was: "I think we are making some progress, but that is only my feeling," she said.

But one of the larger questions facing children after the war years and the holocaust of Pol Pot has not been resolved--family reunification and settling the predicament of orphans.

The government has refused to allow the International Red Cross to search for and assist in the reunification of families whose members are divided between Cambodia and western countries like France or the United States. There is no clearing house in the country; requests from families overseas to find missing children or other relatives go unanswered.

The governments in Phnom Penh and Bangkok have not even agreed on how to return about 100 orphans in Thai border camps who have discovered that their relatives are alive in Cambodia. The Phnom Penh government refuses to allow the Red Cross a minimal role in ensuring that the children are actually returned to their families and not placed in an orphanage back in Phnom Penh. The Thais would prefer that the children are returned with all the other Khmer refugees in a major repatriation program.

Fears that these children might be placed in orphanages rather than with their families are not unfounded. There are five orphanages in Phnom Penh alone and another five in the provinces, according to government figures. Adoption is not permitted.

"We do not want these children adopted by strangers," said Prak Sarinn, assistant director of Orphanage No. 1. "A few were taken by their relatives--uncles or aunts--but they all came back."

All children suffered under Pol Pot but only the estimated 4,000 who live in state orphanages have been given complete care by the state. The priorities of the state--to concentrate on the education of the children and the support of these orphanages--mirror the priorities of the country as a whole. Political indoctrination comes above all else.

One foreign expert believes the government, in its policies toward children as well as in other fields, has become trapped in its own propaganda.

"Pol Pot was such a monster one doesn't need to invent stories about what he did. But this government has to blame everything on Pol Pot. What do they do when the 2-year-olds die from malnutrition? They were born after the Pol Pot era. They have to say malnutrition doesn't exist. It goes on like that . . . They revise history to blame everything on Pol Pot and at the same time can't see the reality of the country today."