The Land Bridge

Almost from the beginning of the refugee exodus in the fall of 1979 some aid workers working on the Thai-Cambodian border had argued that rice, rice seed, farming tools and relief aid should be sent across the border to western Cambodia. Advocates of cross-border food distribution argued that rice would reach people in western Cambodia faster via the cross-border routes than it would if it went through the official route starting at the ports of Kompang Som or Phnom Penh and traveling by train 300+ miles to Battambang. Newspaper reports of delivery and distribution problems in Phnom Penh and Kompong Som reinforced the belief that food had to sent across the border to prevent famine in 1980. With the imminent threat of famine—last year’s rice crop had been devastated because of the conflict—there was, many aid workers argued, a critical need for humanitarian organizations at the border to take matters into their own hands and figure out a way to send food across the border.

There was no official way of bringing food across the Thai-Cambodian border. The new Cambodian government had closed the border at Aranyaprathet and had refused to allow humanitarian organizations to cross there, arguing that the Khmer Rouge hiding along the border would benefit from food distribution in western Cambodia. The Joint Mission was extremely concerned with not upsetting the new Cambodian government, so decisions over border and cross-border relief activities were delicate matters.

Robert Ashe, a British aid worker who had worked in Thailand for many years and was hired by ICRC to work in the border camps, was a strong advocate for organizing food distribution points in the border camps. With a system of inter-camp food distribution in place Ashe believed a similar system could be organized to send rice to the interior of Cambodia. Ashe had noticed that many Cambodians came to the border camps for food and other supplies and then returned to the interior of the country. Ashe thought that the relief agencies could capitalize on this impromptu transportation system and send rice deep into western Cambodia and beyond. Starting in December 1979 relief agencies started sending rice across the border with the vast number of Cambodians with oxcarts and bicycles that came to the border every day. Called the “land bridge,” thousands of kilos of rice were sent across the border starting in December 1979.

The land bridge program was not without controversy. Some aid workers and journalists claimed that the whole border relief operation, especially the cross-border distributions, were an attempt by the United States to draw Cambodians off their farms in order to further destabilze the country and deny the Vietnamese occupation any legitimacy. Some aid organizations argued that the land bridge was sending rice straight across the border to Vietnamese soldiers; others argued that it was going straight to the Khmer Rouge. There was no means of monitoring where the rice went and who used it. The Joint Mission, particularly ICRC, worried that the land bridge would jeopardize their delicate relationship—and on-going negotiations—with the new government in Phnom Penh, who demanded that all relief aid be channeled through them. The Hang Samrin government was adamantly opposed to any cross-border distribution system. For this reason the Joint Mission tried to keep the program as inconspicuous as possible. During negotiations the border relief operation, especially the cross-border food distribution system, was constant sources of tension between the Joint Mission and the Heng Samrin government.

Rice was initially distributed across the land bridge and other essential supplies, such as farming tools, were periodically included. Believing that distributing rice alone would only temporarily halt mass starvation and not stem the predicted rice harvest failure in 1980, aid organizations began to send rice seed across the land bridge for the first time in March 1980. Prioritizing rice seed over rice was a source of heated debate among aid workers at the border.

Throughout the land bridge program its effectiveness was debated. Was it distributing rice and rice seed deep into Cambodia? Did it help avert the predicted famine? Were the food supplies diverted to combatants or resold by traders? No one ultimately knew.