[Jim Laurie is the Hong Kong bureau chief for ABC News, and will narrate a one-hour close-up documentary later this month on ABC television. His six-week visit to Cambodia ended in January.]
Cambodia is a nation that it struggling, with some success, to bring itself out of the utter devastation caused by five years of war followed by four years of the unpopular Pol Pot regime.
Such an assessment does not necessarily square with the prevailing pessimistic view on Cambodia reflected outside the country.
But definite signs of recovery were apparent to this writer after traveling through the 11 of Cambodia's 19 provinces that are firmly under the control of the Vietnam-backed Phnom Penh government. The government has been unable to exercise complete control of the rest of the country because of pockets of resistance led by the ousted Khmer Rouge forces of former ruler Pol Pot.
Indications of a return to normality in Cambodia are at odds with the commonly held view that Vietnam seeks to subjugate the population through colonization or forced starvation and that it is obstructing international relief deliveries.
Among the telltale signs of national rehabilitation witnessed during a six week visit:
Families are being reunited and permitted to own property such as household items, bicycles, and farm animals.
Schools are being reopened. Market activity has resumed (but so has smuggling and corruption). Abandoned cities and towns are slowly being repopulated. All the moves appear calculated to win at least the qualified support of the people.
In Kandal Province, 25 miles southeast of Phnom Penh, I happened across a saffron-robed mendicant monk walking house to house. A small boy carrying a food bucket preceded him, announcing the bonze's arrival with a brief Buddhist chant. People who had not been allowed to practice religion for four years under the Khmer Rouge came out of their houses and offered small plates of mixed rice and corn. The monk delivered his blessing and moved on.
The people said that most pagodas had been desecrated by the Khmer Rouge and that all bonzes were killed or defrocked during the Pol Pot regime. In January 1979 the new government began promoting the return of religion.
At the national theater in Phnom Penh on the Bassac River, I watched as a dozen-or-so former members of the royal ballet attempted dances unpracticed since 1975. Miss V. Savoy, the lead dancer, estimated that most of the better dancers and teachers of the original 300-woman troupe had perished under the Khmer Rouge. Her own 44 months of toil in the rice fields had put her out of shape for the ballet, but she and the others were now encouraged to resume classes.
Still, it would be far too sanguine to suggest that the Cambodians I met were generally pleased with their way of life under Vietnamese domination. Most clearly were not.
Two fears were voiced repeatedly: fear of hunger and the fear of a never-ending Vietnamese military occupation. These show no signs of disappearing.
Many Cambodians I talked to expressed ambivalent feelings toward the presence of the Vietnamese. Hanoi's military presence was an onerous one.
Few Cambodians disguised their desire that Vietnam's troops go home. Yet many expressed the fear that if the Vietnamese did leave, the dreaded Khmer Rouge would return and there would be another round of reprisals.
Vietnamese advisers assigned to the Phnom Penh government were forced to admit that what had been greeted as "a liberating army" was now regarded as an army of occupation. One adviser acknowledged, "We know that the longer we stay, the more resentment against us will grow."
Historical antipathy between the Vietnamese and the Khmer seemed to play a greater role in rising resentment than specific Vietnamese actions. But some Cambodians did complain of individual acts of theft and extortion. The Vietnamese adviser admitted to "bad elements in the Vietnamese Army. . . .Even if that number is only 1 percent," he concluded, "that represents a lot of trouble for Vietnamese-Cambodian relations."
In addition to an estimated 200,000 troops in Cambodia, the Vietnamese have placed advisers at all levels of Cambodian government. The extent of their presence has given rise to accusations of Vietnamese colonialism. Since August, Cambodians reported that the advisers have turned more responsibility over to their Cambodian counterparts, though the Vietnamese appear to retain the privilege of veto over most decisions.
I could find no evidence, however, of Vietnamese in any great number settling in Cambodia, though it would be understandable if some of the more than 300,000 Vietnamese residents of Cambodia in the 1960s returned.
The Phnom Penh government has clearly not met the nation's food and medical needs, and Vietnam's suspicion and distrust of outside help has limited the number of foreign-aid teams inside Cambodia.
After seven months in Phnom Penh, the international aid agencies are still limited to fewer than 30 "observers" in the capital. Only in late January did the government permit entry of foreign medical teams, and these were from Cuba and the Soviet Union.
A random survey conducted in Phnom Penh and four outlying provinces revealed considerable disparity in food allocations.
Adult city residents received between 12 and 16 kilograms of rice and corn a month. At three of the four rural food distribution centers, people were receiving less than two kilograms.
That food distribution continues to be slow and inefficient is widely acknowledged in Phnom Penh. Foreign observers who have taken the time to look around do not believe officials are purposefully hampering the process, however.
Delays, they say, are caused by a disorganized bureaucracy, inexperienced and incompetent administrators, lack of transport, and primitive communications.
In general, it appears that as government control has improved and the Cambodian government structure set up by the Vietnamese has gained in experience, food deliveries have become more efficient.
During my visit to the port of Kompong Som in December, it was evident that thousands of tons of rice, donated by other countries, had piled up in warehouses. It was expected that 16,000 tons of this would be shipped to the countryside that month, yet less than half that amount was moved out.
The situation improved somewhat in January, when 12 thousand tons was trucked to the countryside. There are reports that February deliveries topped those of January.
More worrisome to Cambodian officials than food distribution is the continued failure in agriculture.
In the east I saw newly cultivated fields, and along the Tonle Sap Lake in the northwest, people were planting an extra crop of rice. But elsewhere there was an ominous lack of farm activity.
Even the best official government estimates predicted only 60 percent of the land cultivated in 1969 would be tilled by the end of 1980. At present only 25 percent of the 1969 cultivation level has been reached.
Yet few Cambodians I spoke to expressed much confidence in the government of former Khmer Rouge Battalion commander Heng Samrin. A Cambodian from Kandal Province told me the Phnom Penh government possessed some good men but "most were incapable of independent thinking."
Both Cambodians in the government and some Vietnamese advisers seemed to believe that if it were to succeed, the Heng Samrin government would have to move to distance itself from Hanoi and broaden its base to include Khmers of different backgrounds.
At present the lower ranks of government are filled with bureaucrats who have survived the Khmer Rouge purges and who once were aligned with either Norodom Sihanouk, former head of state, or the Lon Nol regime.
These people voiced uncertainty about the future, but hoped they could somehow preserve an independent Cambodia while, at the same time keeping Vietnam happy.
A government timetable for 1980 calls for the writing of a constitution; village, district, and provincial elections; and the formation of a national assembly.
Some Cambodians hope these formalities will allow a more Cambodian, and less Vietnamese, government to emerge. At the very least any Cambodian government will have to take note of and deal with rising popular resentment to the continued Vietnamese occupation.