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Shortage threatens famine in Vietnam

By PAUL WEDEL

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Thirteen years after sweeping to military victory, Vietnam's Communists find themselves fighting another war, this time against hunger. And they are losing.

Vietnamese officials admit that 3 million people, mostly in the north, are on the brink of starvation. They are calling for international aid.

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Many more of Vietnam's 63 million people are 'underfed and malnourished,' an official broadcast said. Unchecked population growth adds another million mouths a year.

Weeks before the next northern harvest, some people have completely run out of food. Meager rice rations to soldiers and civil servants have been slashed, and emergency food distribution has begun.

Diplomats and international aid workers, with limited access to Vietnam, are cautious about the extent of the problem.

'It is alarming, but there are no confirmed reports of starvation yet,' said one official who asked not to be named. 'Obviously Vietnam has severe food problems that are going to be hard to fix.'

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The government blames much of the problem on bad weather.

'I was there earlier this year and they did have unusual rain and cold which caused extra insects,' said a Western diplomat.

'But they have bad weather nearly every year,' he said. 'A Vietnamese agronomist told me that rice growers in the north have four problems: winter, summer, spring and fall. None of them is good for rice.'

The government has had little success in persuading northern farmers to diversify to other crops more suited to the climate. It also has failed to create the infrastructure to store and transport what can be grown.

'Dilapidated storage facilities and cluttered loading areas have resulted in rice losses at a rate of 15 percent to 20 percent due to excess humidity and 5 percent to 10 percent due to rats, termites, weevils and theft,' a state radio report said in May.

Land tenure disputes, often left to the discretion of Communist Party cadres, 'have led to arrests, beatings and convictions, destruction of rice fields and felling of trees,' reported Vietnamese radio correspondent Tran Ba Ha.

Runaway inflation, estimated at more than 1,000 percent, has left the government rice price far too low to attract sellers. Recent travellers from Vietnam report signs farmers are hoarding rice as a hedge against inflation.

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'Why should anyone exchange rice which is gaining in value for currency that loses value every minute?' asked one.

The Communist Party newspaper Nhan Dan reported that Hau Giang, the biggest rice-growing province in the Mekong River Delta, has turned in only 50 percent of the rice it was supposed to provide to the state.

It blamed this on 'difficulties faced by rice growers, heavy debts of (party) cadres to the state, price fever and disturbances created by speculators.'

The government has appealed to overseas aid donors for $120 million in fertilizer and insecticide and 108,000 tons of emergency food assistance.

The U.N. World Food Program plans a food shipment. Most Western countries are still examining the request.

The United States says it will give no aid unless there is evidence of life-threatening starvation.

'We believe the causes of Vietnam's current predicament are its misguided economic policies and its illegal occupation of Cambodia, which have diverted resources which Hanoi could and should be using to meet the people's urgent need,' a U.S. official said.

Even if Vietnam scrapes by without serious starvation, the food shortage has important implications for the 18-month-old leadership of Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Van Linh.

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The shortage has hit hardest at the military, party cadres and civil servants who depend on government rice rations.

Radio Hanoi reported the other day that rice supplies to officials in Haiphong, the major northern port, have been cut by one-third. Rice supplies arrive two to three months behind schedule, it said.

'In effect the government has defaulted on its promises to the people that keep it running,' said one diplomat.

Some Western diplomats fear the food problems will undermine Linh's liberal political and economic reforms. Now, they say, is the time for the West to win Vietnam's gratitude by giving aid.

Others, however, point out that Linh's reforms often have been stymied by middle-level officials fearful of losing their old powers and privileges.

'Maybe the food squeeze will convince the obstructionists that real reform has to come,' one analyst said. 'And that they too will suffer if it doesn't.'

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