BANGKOK, MAY 12 -- Vietnamese officials, saying that more than 3 million of their people are "at the edge of starvation," have appealed to international organizations and foreign countries for emergency aid.
Hanoi, facing a decline in food production and a rapidly growing population, has requested 108,000 tons of food until the June harvest, according to a copy of a written appeal received in Bangkok today. The appeal states that nearly 8 million people in 12 northern provinces, including the capital of Hanoi, are "seriously short of food."
Rice prices, which increased ten-fold last year, have doubled again since March. Recent visitors to Hanoi describe the atmosphere there as "tense" and report seeing a marked increase in beggars and homeless people.
Visitors say that government employees, who make up a large portion of the city's population, have not received their monthly rice ration since February.
Hanoi radio announced Tuesday that three deputy premiers responsible for agriculture, food processing and foreign trade have been dropped from the Cabinet. Analysts here speculate that the three were blamed for the country's falling food production and their failure to import food soon enough to avert the current crisis.
The Cabinet changes came one month before Vietnam's national assembly is scheduled to elect a new premier to replace Pham Hung, who died in March.
Vietnam's economic crisis was exacerbated in March, when the state bank introduced new 1,000, 2,000 and 5,000 dong bank notes. The move created panic and fueled inflation, which was already estimated at about 1,000 percent. The black market value of the dong fell from 1,300 to the dollar to 3,000 dong in less than two months. The official exchange rate is 368.
Vietnamese officials told a meeting of diplomats and international organization representatives last month that the country needed 1.5 million tons of grain to feed its 65 million people.
The U.N. World Food Program is expected to send 65,000 tons of food to Vietnam in response to the emergency. Thai newspapers reported in March that the Soviet Union, Hanoi's top aid donor, planned to send 60,000 tons of rice to Vietnam.
But diplomats here say most western countries are unlikely to respond to Vietnam's appeal because of their opposition to Hanoi's nine-year-old occupation of neighboring Cambodia.
The United States cited the Cambodia occupation as a major reason for Hanoi's economic and food problems. The State Department said in late April it was "sensitive to the suffering of the Vietnamese people" but that Washington "has no intention of providing food assistance to Vietnam."
Last month, Vietnamese officials suggested to Sen. Larry Pressler (R-S.D.), who was visiting Hanoi, that the United States consider offering food aid to areas where people are being asked to help look for the remains of American servicemen missing since the Vietnam war.
Washington rejected the invitation. "We are outraged at any suggestion of linking food assistance with the return of remains," said State Department spokeswoman Phyllis Oakley. "The United States does not provide aid to Vietnam and does not plan to do so."
Pressler told reporters in Bangkok that he would explore the possibility of providing U.S. food to Vietnam through the Food for Peace program.
Last year's crop failure in Vietnam was caused by drought in both the north and the south, six typhoons and a variety of insect infestations. Grain production fell to 17.6 million tons, down from 18.4 million tons in 1986. Bad weather and pests have affected 80 percent of the north's spring crops, the Hanoi aid appeal said.
Agriculture was one of the brighter spots in Vietnam's economy following the introduction of some capitalist-style reforms beginning in 1981.
Under a contract system, farmers were allowed to keep what they produced above their quota obligations to the government.
Grain production increased from less than 13 million tons in 1978 to more than 18 million tons in 1985.
But the population of Vietnam is growing at a rate of more than 2 percent, or about 1 million persons, each year.