Built on a cliff-top in the Dangrek mountain range that forms Cambodia’s northern border with Thailand, Preah Vihear temple is one of the Kingdom’s most spectacular attractions. But there’s much more to the site than a pretty view. Fresh off the presses, Temple in the Clouds: Faith and Conflict at Preah Vihear charts the temple’s fascinating history, from its construction during the reign of the Khmer empire and the controversial 1907 map drawn by the French that put the Thai-controlled but abandoned site on the Cambodian side of the border, to the bloody conflicts that resulted from it and the international court cases that ultimately confirmed Cambodia as its custodian. Post Weekend this week interviewed former Washington Post foreign correspondent John Burgess about his experiences researching and writing the book, the first comprehensive history of the temple.
Why did you decide to write a book about Preah Vihear?
I first went to Preah Vihear in 1974 to do a newspaper story. I spent just a few hours there, but came away enchanted with the place – that’s a very common reaction. There’s the intense beauty of the cliff-top setting and the ancient stones, and the tragedy that the temple’s been in a conflict zone for so many years. A subsequent visit in 2010 brought those feelings back. The great monument was still awaiting a resolution to the long troubles. So the idea came to me to write a book that would tell the full story of the place, ancient and modern.
Do you have a personal view on where the border should be or who should be guardian of the temple?
From the start, my intention was not to write something that would argue the issue from one perspective or the other, just to gather the facts together. As you know, the International Court of Justice has decided the question of ownership, and both Cambodia and Thailand have accepted that decision.
There are some real characters in your book. Who would you most like to sit down and actually interview?
Certainly Divakara, the aged Brahmin priest who visited Preah Vihear in the early 12th century. What a thing it would be to get a first-hand account of the temple and its community in its golden age. Prince Damrong was a fascinating, forceful personality who had deep influence on the modernisation of Siam – that would be quite an interview. And it would be quite an experience to sit down with Cambodia’s legal counsel Dean Acheson for an in-person exposure to the man’s wit, ego and erudition.
Was there a period or part of the story that you most enjoyed researching and writing about?
That would be the ICJ case and the decades leading up to it, because the court proceedings were documented so well. The official case papers that anyone can get with a download from the court’s offices in the Hague contain an ocean of detail – full transcripts of long days of hearings, for instance, affidavits of people who visited, images, lists of evidence. It was a real slog getting through them, but ultimately very satisfying to get my mind around the many issues, events and personalities. And then to add to what was already known by running down other sources that hadn’t been tapped.
Was there anything you discovered during your research that you felt was something of a scoop? Any great “eureka” moments?
The big eureka moment came on first seeing the papers of Philip Jessup, who represented Thailand in the early phases of the case and then dropped out when he was appointed to be a judge at the court. I sat down with several boxes of documents at the US Library of Congress and right away realised that they contained a wealth of material about Preah Vihear and the case. His papers have been at the library since the 1980s, open to anyone, but as far as I can tell, I was the first person to look at the ICJ portion of them.
What was the most difficult part of the research?
I spent a long time looking for the Cambodian counterpart of the Jessup files, but ultimately was disappointed to come up dry. Acheson’s publicly available papers and letters contain very little about the case. It would be frustrating to find a letter that touches on the trial – I’d find myself asking: Why can’t he elaborate? But I did get some priceless limericks and notes he’d composed right there in the courtroom when he got bored with the proceedings. They were courtesy of Brooke Clagett, daughter of Brice Clagett, Acheson’s associate at the trial.
Peering into your glass ball, what do you see happening with the temple in the future? Do you think it will always be a point of contention? What’s your greatest hope for the temple?
I wouldn’t attempt to predict the future, but certainly things are looking more promising than they have in a long time. We’ve now got four years of peace at the temple and improved levels of trust between the two countries’ governments. The Thais have said they will sit down with the Cambodians to discuss implementing the ICJ’s 2013 interpretation of the 1962 decision. That could open the door to departure of the security forces of both sides, a reopening of the crossing from the Thai side, and general normalisation. It’s my hope that, in the future, Preah Vihear will be known not as a flashpoint but as one of the world’s greatest examples of the powers of human creativity.
Temple in the Clouds: Faith and Conflict at Preah Vihear is available from Monument Books for $17.50. John Burgess will personally launch the book at Meta House on July 29.