What do 9th-century temples and 20th-century chemical toxins have in common?
In the case of Kampuchea (Cambodia) they are both being used as wartime propaganda weapons. On one side are the Pol Pot guerrilla forces that ruled Kampuchea from 1975 to their ouster by Vietnam's invading army in 1979. On the other are some 200,000 Vietnamese soldiers and the Kampuchean forces of the Vietnam-installed Heng Samrin government.
Charges that Vietnam has been using chemical warfare against Pol Pot guerrillas in Kampuchea have elicited considerable international attention in the last year. But only now is the debate over Kampuchea's ancient temple complex known as Angkor coming into full view.
Assessing blame for the decapitated statues and bullet-riddled walls observed by recent visitors is an issue that mirrors the general propaganda war between the two sides. The Vietnamese accuse the Khmer Rouge of desecrating Angkor as part of their fanatical fury directed against all vestiges of Kampuchea's past. The Pol Pot insurgents in turn accuse Vietnamese soldiers and officials of looting Angkor antiquities for profitable sales in Thailand or Vietnam. China, which gives military aid to the insurgents, has joined the fray. Its newspapers have echoed the Pol Pot charges.
Angkor sprawls over nearly a hundred square miles of patchwork jungle in Kampuchea's northwest. From the 9th to 13th centuries the Khmer Empire was headquartered there. It produced a sophisticated agricultural system and a spectacular array of stone palaces and temples, including the famed Angkor Wat.
The rich detail in miles of bas-reliefs that surround the buildings, the subtle mix of Buddhist and Hindu aesthetics in the sculpture galleries, and the grandiose scale of this architectural explosion in the jungle have awed all who have come to see what King Jayavarman II and his descendants wrought.
For Kampucheans, Angkor is synonymous with their nation. The contesting factions each use it in their flags. A three-towered Angkor Wat has served as the flag of the Pol Pot government since it took power in 1975. The Heng Samrin government uses a five-towered version that has been a symbol of the pro-Hanoi wing of the Khmer communist movement since the 1950s.
Today Angkor is a combat zone. The Vietnamese and Heng Samrin forces control Angkor Wat and the buildings surrounding it. But visitors report hearing gunfire at night and a need for armed escorts to visit parts of the temple grounds.
On the periphery of Angkor, Pol Pot guerrillas say they hold Banteay Srei, a 10th-century temple, and Phnom Kulen, the quarry for construction of the ancient capital. No independent observers have been able to confirm these claims. Pol Pot forces have published photos of their troops in the far reaches of Angkor holding up current copies of European magazines.
Now a public opinion battle is unfolding over Angkor to augment the military one. In recent months, the Vietnamese and Heng Samrin forces have escorted teams from many of the world's most prestigious publications on visits to Angkor Wat. This has generated an unprecedented spate of publicity about the Kampuchean monuments.
The May issues of both National Geographic and GEO magazines carry extensive stories about Angkor, as did the April issue of Asia. From Hong Kong's Far Eastern Economic Review to Paris Match, the international press has also been filled with reports about damage done to Angkor and the need for international action to save it.
As world opinion becomes more aware of the Angkor conservation issue, the monuments are likely to increase their value to both sides as a political and military football. Peace at Angkor ultimately depends on peace in Kampuchea itself. Without that, it is probably naive to think much can be done to save this enormous cultural treasure.
In the propaganda war, the Pol Pot forces may hold a more credible position than on some other questions. Amid the widespread killings, forced relocations, and illness that engulfed Kampuchea when Pol Pot was in power, Angkor sometimes seemed to occupy a specially sanctified position. Despite charges that Pol Pot soldiers sometimes desecrated the monuments, visitors to Kampuchea at that time - including this writer -- observed the monuments being maintained on a minimal but careful basis.
In any event, the central problem so far is not the man-inflicted damage. Wilbur E. Garrett, editor of National Geographic notes, ''Despite rumors and exaggerated reports that the temples were demolished or severely damaged, we can report that, amazingly, they are nearly unscathed by the years of war.''
How long that will remain so, no one can say. In the meantime, international experts and financial support are clearly necessary to preserve Angkor from serious dangers of the jungle elements, ranging from tree roots cracking the stones to corrosive deposits left by rainwater.
UNESCO, which was actively involved in conservation work at Angkor before the fighting began, has offered to return. Its director-general, Amadou Mahtar M'Bow , has urged that the whole complex be neutralized and placed under UNESCO control. But since UNESCO is a United Nations-affiliated organization, and the UN recognizes Pol Pot's ousted government (Democratic Kampuchea) instead of the Heng Samrin government, the issue of with whom UNESCO will negotiate and cooperate is a political mine field.
A good indicator of how thorny the matter is came this spring when the National Geographic Society in cooperation with UNESCO sought to mount an exhibit of Angkor photos in the lobby of the UN headquarters building in New York. Democratic Kampuchea representatives objected to inclusion of photos showing Heng Samrin troops at Angkor. After protracted negotiations, the objectionable photos were removed and the exhibit proceeded.
Thiounn Prasith, UN ambassador for Democratic Kampuchea explains his opposition to the photos by saying they were a ''dangerous precedent.He maintains Vietnam uses the Angkor issue to ''compel the world community to deal with the Heng Samrin puppet regime.
Mr. Thiounn adds that Democratic Kampuchea supports UNESCO's desire to neutralize the area, but only if the negotiations are carried out directly with his government and the Vietnamese, not the Heng Samrin group.