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Until now, attempts to get food to the starving Khmers have been hampered by red tape and the anarchic conditions inside Cambodia. The World Food Program, UNICEF and the International Red Cross have been supplying emergency rations to the refugees who have fled into Thailand as well as to the 80,000 Thais who have been displaced from their border villages by the fighting. Initially, Hanoi and the regime of Heng Samrin in Phnom-Penh objected to the relief operation because many of the refugees being helped were considered members or supporters of the Khmer Rouge. But it now appears that relief agencies will be allowed to set up offices in Phnom-Penh to monitor the distribution of food, thus helping ensure that it will reach starving civilians and not the battling armies. For many Cambodians, aid will arrive too late. The country needs a minimum of 700 tons of food per day, and only a fraction of that is arriving.
Famine is only the latest in a series of wrenching tragedies that have befallen Cambodia since it first became engulfed by the Indochina war in 1970. Following the Communist takeover by China-backed Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge in 1975, between 2 million and 3 million Cambodians were systematically murdered or otherwise eliminated under a genocidal "purification" policy. It was aimed at destroying the educated class and creating a peasant society. Some journalists who have visited the country have seen mass graves and torture camps reminiscent of Dachau and Auschwitz.
In December 1978, Viet Nam invaded Cambodia, swiftly managed to depose Pol Pot and installed Samrin as President. In fierce fighting against the surviving Khmer Rouge cadres, food became a military weapon on both sides. Explained a Western military analyst in Bangkok last week: "If you can't grow food, you can't eat, and if you can't eat, you can't fight." Rice crops have been destroyed and planting new fields has become dangerous. Pol Pot's forces harass farmers in areas controlled by Viet Nam, while the Vietnamese do their best to prevent food supplies from getting to the Khmer Rouge.
From his headquarters in North Korea, exiled Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who adroitly juggled the perennially factious forces in Cambodia before his ouster in 1970, announced that he was launching a new effort to return his country to political neutrality. The Prince, who may be the only figure with enough universal appeal to unite the country, said that he was establishing a non-Communist guerrilla force as an alternative to both the Pol Pot and the Heng Samrin regimes.