Angkor Still Stands Guard

May 19, 1993

The role of church as sanctuary has persisted through history It is getting another workout in Cambodia, where the majestic temples of Angkor, which for a thousand years have defined Cambodian or Khmer culture, are taking on new visitors overnight.

The Khmer Rouge guerrillas, fighting desperately to disrupt the elections scheduled for next week, attacked the provincial capital of Siem Reap on May 3, shooting up everyone and everything in sight. Since then, hundreds of villagers have taken their livestock to the temples of nearby Angkor every night for sanctuary, returning to their fields in morning.

None of the combatants in the current fighting in Cambodia attacks the temples of Angkor, although art thieves and smugglers have. So the peasants are safe overnight.

The great Buddhist and Hindu temples, begun in the 7th century, survived all the trauma of the past decades, awaiting another legitimate Cambodian regime to symbolize and protect them, including the fabled Angkor Wat.

In the 15th century, national power moved from Angkor to Phnom Penh, where it has resided since. Angkor was abandoned and unknown to the West until French imperialists stumbled on the ruins in 1861.

The United Nations-administered election should start a democratic constitution-writing process and establish a legitimate interim government, possibly the current government of Hun Sen. The Khmer Rouge, who nearly destroyed the people while governing for three years in the late 1970s, agreed to the process, then declared war on it. The election process and U.N. personnel are equally targets. That being the case, the act of voting will be more important than the outcome, and any result except a pitiful turnout would be a rejection of the hated Khmer Rouge.

The Khmer Rouge will still have to be dealt with, but preferably by a government commanding international recognition and national respect. The temples of Angkor, among the treasures of world art and architecture, must be saved. And for that to happen, Cambodia must be saved.

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