Too often, beds are hammocks strung across the one room serving as a home; food is washed in the sewer water that flows in open gutters down the city's streets; garbage is dumped on sidewalks and burned in the evenings. The people of Phnom Penh seem to be camping, not living, in their once beautiful city.
Small wooden stalls set up in markets throughout the city sell a profusion of luxury consumer items that most people cannot afford. There are countless motorbikes for sale here, but in the countryside transportation is so poor that the improved rice harvest cannot be shipped where it is most needed. Once again, malnutrition is taking the lives of Cambodia's young.
As a reporter who worked in Cambodia during the civil war in the mid-1970s and who returned for a visit at the end of the Pol Pot dictatorship, I found this January that the seemingly miraculous recovery from the horrors of that dictatorship after the Vietnamese invasion of 1979 has come to a halt. The country is sinking again.
One foreign expert describes the change:
"At the beginning of 1981 people were coming out of their lifelessness; they were full of enthusiasm. I guess I wanted to believe, like everyone else, that we were bringing this country back to life. We did not. That point is past.
"In 1981 things began to deteriorate. The political process began extracting so much energy out of the people. The incredible poverty didn't really change--people found they still couldn't make ends meet. They can't understand, nor can I, the West's absolutely immoral position of supporting Pol Pot, and they became afraid again: afraid the Khmer Rouge will come back, afraid the Vietnamese will never leave, afraid . . . ."
Now, four years after Vietnam installed the Heng Samrin government in Phnom Penh, most people here still do not have the rudiments that most Southeast Asian villagers take for granted: clean water, a measure of sanitation, a regular source of fuel and energy and a dependable supply of affordable food. Health experts here believe that more than half the deaths in this city are due to the vicious cycle of malnutrition, unsanitary conditions and disease that flourishes in a tropical climate if basic needs are not met.
The accomplishments of the first years of liberation from the Pol Pot holocaust remain impressive. Schools have been established throughout the country. Villagers have returned to their homes and, organized into informal "mutual aid teams," have brought rice cultivation up to more than a million tons. But, beneath the heartening signs of recovery--a raucous Sunday soccer match at Phnom Penh's sports stadium, the soft sounds of a classical xylophone ensemble accompanying members of the reconstituted ballet corps--Cambodia is sliding into a dangerous new cycle of poverty.
The reasons are many:
* The devastating legacy of Pol Pot's four-year dictatorship, in which the entire country was uprooted and almost 2 million people died in the name of a radical revolution.
* The insistence of the Vietnamese that political indoctrination and consolidation come first, at the cost of economic improvement.
* The constant drain of the war on the Thai border, where Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge troops, with the allied forces of neutralist Son Sann and former ruler Prince Norodom Sihanouk, are fighting the occupying Vietnamese Army.
* The refusal of the international aid community, led by the United States, to give more than emergency aid to Cambodia because of its continued occupation by Vietnam.
* The failure of the Soviet Union to provide the major relief it promised, and the inability of Vietnam, hard pressed to cope with its own major economic problems, to fill the gap.
* The still unrepaired damage from the long civil war between Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge and the U.S.-backed Lon Nol government, particularly from the bombing by U.S. B52s.
* Finally, Cambodians are discouraged. While grateful for the overthrow of Pol Pot, they had expected the Heng Samrin government to keep its word and rebuild the country as well as to give them the basic freedoms outlawed under Pol Pot. Thus the people have not given Heng Samrin the support he needs.
Because of the wars and revolutions and the dislocation they brought, few records, reports, statistics or even books are available in Cambodia. One must rely instead on interviews, first-hand impressions and comparisons with the past. Recalling my earlier stays here, I found that despite the government's claims that recovery was complete in 1982 and actual development had begun, there is little reconstruction here and only minor rehabilitation.
There has been almost no improvement in the key sectors necessary for development: transportation, energy, production and circulation of basic necessities and reestablishment of prewar Cambodia's industrial base. In fact, the industrial base inherited from the Sihanouk and Lon Nol eras and largely maintained under Pol Pot has yet to be revived. The rubber-processing plants on Phnom Penh's riverbank and the former Dumex pharmaceutical plant that were still operating just days before the Vietnamese invasion at the end of 1978 stand idle today, more than four years later.
Nor has the Heng Samrin government allowed the religious revival it promised in 1979. The authorities have suppressed Buddhism, not only the faith of the vast majority but an important cultural underpinning of Cambodia. Pagodas are locked to worshipers except for the few, most important, religious holidays.
The buildings are used for local political meetings. The monks are not allowed to instruct the young or religious novices in the faith. The government has refused to allow the Buddhists to form their own organization as was promised in 1979. Buddhism is being forced into a quaint, ceremonial role.
"The monks are now busy learning about the new socialist system," explained a caretaker at the city's Wat Niroat Reaingsei. "We keep the pagoda locked and the pagoda schools closed. The children all go to state schools." AS A RETURNING journalist, I found the new Phnom Penh an unsettling jigsaw puzzle of many layers of recent Cambodian history. To get around the city, you must know the old names of the rechristened streets--Rue Charles de Gaulle, the boulevards Monivong and Norodom--and there has been a return here to deeply ingrained customs such as working at a leisurely pace, stopping for a long rest at midday and celebrating countless holidays.
With most of the old elite dead or dispersed overseas, the most striking similarity is to the Lon Nol era, particularly the last years of the war. Now, as then, the ruling government has the air of a caretaker government. Today the foreign proconsul is the Vietnamese ambassador, not the American, and the country is far poorer.
Yet some current scenes bring back visions of 1974: officers still riding around the city in chauffeur-driven white Mercedes Benzes, their automatic rifles perched prominently on the rear window ledges; soldiers treating friends to banquets in private restaurants, complete with cases of beer and paid for with rolls of bills equivalent to a year's salary. The scent of corruption is in the air.
Now, as then, private traders are growing fat and wealthy while the bureaucrats expected to run the country are paid such paltry salaries that many either moonlight, dabble in petty trade or solicit bribes. Now, as then, I had the feeling that a few dedicated people are keeping their fingers in a dike that could break at any minute. But the comparison ends there, with no sign that the Vietnamese would accept defeat here, as the United States did.
Remnants of the Pol Pot era are visible as well. The Heng Samrin government has never reversed Pol Pot's nationalization of all property. In some areas the question is moot. In the country, people till the land as if they owned it. In the capital, residents are required to register with neighborhood authorities when they move into abandoned homes. Claims of previous ownership have no validity, however, and families generally occupy no more than two rooms in a house.
With no private claims to hinder it, the government has been free to redistribute property and has done so largely equitably. A former French restaurant has become an elementary school, an old mansion houses four destitute families.
But the best surviving or restored buildings invariably are denied to Cambodians. Instead, they are used as headquarters for Vietnamese officers or for Soviet missions.
There is another, more surprising reminder of the Pol Pot era: the officials manning the government offices, many of whom are survivors of the government that unleashed the holocaust.
But otherwise the city bears no resemblance to Phnom Penh under Pol Pot. It is as if that insane era vanished with the black-pajama-clad soldiers now fighting on the border. DURING THE LON NOL era, the singular greed of the new elite demoralized Cambodian society, setting the stage for the government's defeat. Those in power and those with wealth were obsessed with amassing fortunes from U.S. aid, ignoring public needs and the war effort for which the aid was intended. Medicines for hospitals were sold on the black market. So was rice, and so was the ammunition needed to defend Phnom Penh.
Under the Heng Samrin government, a different obsession is arresting Cambodia's recovery: the Vietnamese obsession with communist indoctrination. In every sphere of life here, the highest priority is given to educating the country's leaders, bureaucrats and soldiers to accept the one political system prescribed from Hanoi.
No issue is free of political considerations. Weekly study sessions are required for everyone on the state payroll, and that includes all but traders and small businessmen. A visitor hears anguished and frustrating stories: of doctors summoned for political courses at a moment's notice; of a hospital where six patients died when their nurses had to leave for political instruction; of crucial construction projects suspended for weeks while supervisors underwent political education.
Even senior government officials in key ministries here have disappeared for months without explanation, returning just as suddenly from a "study course" in Vietnam. Some observers discount the disruption caused by these long absences. The government continues to function, they say, because all decisions really are made by experts from Vietnam. The absent Cambodian ministers are just figureheads.
Cambodian sources who asked not to be named say one effect of all this emphasis on political indoctrination is to frustrate and discourage the few skilled workers and professionals who survived the war years and Pol Pot. These sources say such Cambodians refuse promotions to avoid being put in positions where they would be pressured to toe a strict political line. As one source put it:
"If I had taken the better jobs offered to me I'd worry all the time if I had said or done the right thing at work. I'd be taken away from my family for study courses, and it wouldn't mean a thing for the country's development. I'm here to aid Kampuchea the formal name for Cambodia , not the Vietnamese."
Not only have these skilled people become discouraged, their counterparts overseas have been banned from returning home. The government refuses to allow Cambodians who have emigrated to come back and help rebuild the country no matter what their skills--doctors or nurses, architects or engineers. The reason is political control.
The indoctrination is not confined to work hours. The people awake at 5 a.m. to loudspeakers blaring news bulletins, reminders of Pol Pot's horrors and invocations of gratitude to the Vietnamese liberators. Pictures of Ho Chi Minh, Marx and Lenin hang side by side in public buildings, schools and factories, with photos of Heng Samrin generally placed on another wall.
In conversations with officials, the litany of political priorities always is headed by Cambodia's militant solidarity with Vietnam. Next is the solidarity of Indochina--Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos--then, solidarity with the socialist world and, finally, solidarity with all peace-loving people.
These are not empty phrases, for they guide how Cambodia has asked for and accepted help from abroad. The politicization of aid is perhaps the most controversial issue in the country and the most crucial for Cambodians who wish for a speedier economic recovery.
In 1979, when they drove out Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge, the Vietnamese provided the essential aid and expertise Cambodia needed to get back on its feet; the Soviet Union provided some food aid as well. But the Soviet record since then has been dismal. According to Cambodian sources, Moscow has failed to provide at least two-thirds of the aid it promised, including crucial projects to repair electric power plants, Phnom Penh's water system and major highways.
The Vietnamese, like most of the world, have taken Cambodia off the critical list. They provide essentially their own needs as an occupying force--the upkeep for an Army of more than 160,000 soldiers and thousands of advisers. In Hanoi, Vietnamese officials justify this lack of aid by saying repeatedly that Cambodians eat better than Vietnamese.
Although little aid comes from communist nations, the Cambodians are obliged to praise them as their saviors. At every showcase of recovery I visited, the Soviet Bloc was praised for providing the aid. On closer inspection, it usually turned out that noncommunist aid was at least as important.
Phnom Penh's Orphanage Number 1, for example, has been outfitted largely by U.S. charities which provided beds, clothing and carpentry tools. Yet Soviet aid was cited at the initial briefing. After the tour, in which the only evidence of Soviet aid had been political pamphlets, the guide explained that Soviet canned fish had been received during the orphanage's first year.
This slighting of noncommunist aid reflects Vietnamese concerns about anything that might weaken their hold on Cambodia. Although the country obviously needs a major transfusion of aid from abroad, Hanoi has tightened the rules to make it more difficult for foreigners and international agencies to provide it. At the same time, an international campaign led by the United States and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has restricted aid to Cambodia to emergency assistance to force a settlement on the issue of Vietnam's occupation.
In the first months after Pol Pot was toppled, an estimated $400 million in U.N. and private relief aid flowed into Cambodia to feed famine victims, especially infants. This first aid, provided under emergency conditions, was simply turned over to the new Heng Samrin government for distribution. But when the relief agencies, once the threat of famine had passed, sought to supervise the use made of their aid, the Vietnamese balked.
"The ministries want to squeeze us for money," one relief worker complained, "but not give us the role we require if we're going to develop anything in this country--monitoring that involves more than one- or two-day trips, and access so we can return and evaluate the projects."
The government has refused to let the International Red Cross search for survivors of the Pol Pot years whose relatives have left the country. Foreign public health officials have been refused direct contact with Cambodians.
"Even to just educate the people--to go into the city's neighborhoods and tell them how to boil water, tell them to stop burning automobile batteries that build up the lead levels in their children's blood--would be to tamper with police supervision," one relief official said. "The state doesn't want anyone but their authority figures working with the people. It is not allowed."
Under these conditions, many relief agencies are phasing out their aid here and considering shutting down their offices. But the relief workers stay on, pleading just to keep their shingles hanging in Phnom Penh until better times.
"We all stay because we have seen the nobility of these people struggling to make a life for themselves," one official said. "They have made the most out of whatever help we've given them, with tremendous effort and courage. Considering what they have to put up with, we can't imagine where they got the vision." NEXT: Dealing with Pol Pot's legacy