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Cambodia's Capital Bustling as Hunger Lurks Not Far Away

October 05, 1987|NICK B. WILLIAMS Jr. | Times Staff Writer

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Soung's house stands in a small patch of green sugar palms and banana trees, surrounded by the cracked dry earth of Takeo province.

She rolled a reed mat across the bamboo floor of the sleeping room the other day and invited her visitors to sit. This traditional Cambodian hospitality was all she had to offer.

In a corner lay a half-empty bag of rice, her last. It was late September, the monsoon planting season, but there had been no rain for weeks, and only a shower then. Her husband, a rice farmer, was up on the road, trying to sell a few vegetables he had raised outside the thatched stilt house. Their three daughters were with him, and their boy sat beside Soung on the floor.

"I worry about the children," she said slowly. "We have only rice porridge. No meat."

Then, embarrassed but unable to maintain the dignity with which Cambodian farm families bear the drought and other hardships, she wiped a tear from her eye.

Contrast in Phnom Penh

Nearly 70 miles to the north, in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, O Resey, the big free market, was stacked with bags of rice and other grains. For a price, the throng of shoppers could also buy Laotian coffee, Vietnamese sandals, smuggled blue jeans with Lee labels, Sony stereos and Johnnie Walker Scotch.

Newsboys hustled through the stalls selling the popular newspaper Kampuchea--the official name of the country still known to the West as Cambodia. Young girls browsed at a display of fuzzy Alpine-style hats, which were introduced by Cambodians returning from East Europe and have become popular. Old men fingered bound stalks of marijuana on sale with the vegetables.

Phnom Penh is more prosperous than it has been since 1975, when the Khmer Rouge came to power, banished city dwellers and intellectuals to the countryside and killed millions in a misguided experiment in agrarian revolution. People began returning to Phnom Penh in 1979, when Vietnamese forces drove the Khmer Rouge into exile.

Vitality and Despair

In Cambodia, a country of 7 million people living close to the edge, fortune is mixed. An atmosphere of vitality has come to the capital, but hunger and disease are never far away. Rains have come to the capital, but the surrounding provinces are withering under the drought that has devastated large parts of Asia this year.

"Even if we plant in the next week," Premier Hun Sen said on another dry day in late September, "the yield will be far below expectations."

The drought is the worst in 10 years. In late August, the government appealed to international organizations for food grains, fertilizer and insecticides. But some outsiders regard the government's figures with suspicion, and no large-scale aid is yet on the way.

"We have a lot of problems we have to solve at the same time," Hun Sen observed.

There are, for instance, the continuing guerrilla war against the Vietnamese-backed regime and the reconstruction of the roads, buildings, schools and industry damaged in earlier fighting.

Even if late rains come, the country's irrigation systems cannot adequately store or move the water.

"Irrigation systems? There are none," a harried foreign relief worker scoffed.

In Takeo province, not the worst-hit by any means, dry rice paddies stretch toward the horizon. Here and there, one or two squares on a checkerboard, bright-green young rice is growing where some industrious farm family has hauled water in from a distant source. Other patches stand dry beside a partially filled pond, perhaps abandoned by families that have moved to Phnom Penh seeking relief.

"This year, there will not be sufficient rice even for the province," said Sun Sokhon, deputy director of the Communist Party's provincial committee.

The province target, he said, was to plant 153,000 hectares (2.47 hectares make an acre), but only 31,260 hectares had been planted by late September. If there is late, heavy rain, the figure would rise to no more than 100,000, he said, and that would be mostly short-term, low-yield rice.

No Rice Surplus This Year

In 1985 and 1986, the province produced a rice surplus, but this year Takeo will sell no rice to the state for distribution in Phnom Penh and as rations to state workers. This means that the province will not receive the lumber, iron rods and bricks the state normally gives it in return for rice.

In an effort to get by, the 570,000 people of the province have fallen back on growing vegetables and making handicrafts. There is talk that the government may offer food rice in exchange for seed rice, out of fear that the hungry populace may start eating the seed crop, imperiling future plantings. Cambodia's insufficient stock of draft animals has already fallen prey to food-short farmers, according to relief workers in the capital.

Another victim of the drought may be the defensive wall of tank traps and mine fields the government is building along the Thai border to discourage guerrilla infiltration--the so-called K-5 plan.

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