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Burgess Documents Cambodian-Thai Conflict at Preah Vihear in Newest Book


[Editor’s note: Preah Vihear temple has been at the center of a border dispute between Cambodia and Thailand for more than a century. Built from sandstone a thousand years ago, it was the center of faith and worship during the height of the Khmer Empire. The temple is situated in the Dangrek Mountains, atop a 500-meter cliff. VOA Khmer’s Emma Cramer sits down with author and former Washington Post correspondent, John Burgess, to talk about his new book entitled “Temple in the Clouds: Faith and Conflict at Preah Vihear.” Burgess will be in Phnom Penh to launch his book at Meta House on July 29th.]

VOA Khmer: Hi John, thank you so much for being here, appreciated.

John Burgess: Hello.

VOA Khmer: My first question is what led you to discover the temple Preah Vihear?

John Burgess: Well, I first went there in 1974 as a journalist during the Cambodia civil war and like almost everyone who visits the place, I came away just enchanted with it. It’s on the top of a fifteen hundred or sixteen hundred foot cliff, you can see for many, many miles and you are surrounded by incredible heritage of the Khmer civilization a thousand years ago. Preah Vihear, actually five temples, is arranged along an avenue that runs up a gently rising hill side, each temple holier than the one before it. When you go to the cliff top which is basically the holy of the holy, it is an amazing place that makes an impression on everyone who goes there.

VOA Khmer: You saw it since 1974, and now you are just coming up with this book. Why the huge time gap between the two?

John Burgess: Well, there were many years that the temple was inaccessible because it was caught in the Cambodian civil war. But I went back in 2010 after the place reopened, getting there without too much trouble from the Cambodian side and again I was struck all over again by what an amazing place it was. And, I was looking for a subject for a new book and suddenly it became clear it’s sitting right here. Ancient history, modern history, it’s all quite well documented, if you take the trouble to dig it out.

VOA Khmer: So, that trip inspired you to do this book?

John Burgess: That’s right. The trip came in the time when Thailand and Cambodia were again at odds with each other over the temple. There had been some fighting two years before we were there. And so, it seems a particularly good time to write a book that you know, in its small way, might in the long term help to find a solution to the problem by bringing the facts together into one book.

VOA Khmer: It’s a worthy cause, for sure. Was there a particular moment that made you realize while you were there, I guess, in your research, this is what people deserve to know about, this troubled history between Cambodia and Thailand?

John Burgess: Well, I would not say a particular moment but, I went to quite a few places, Cambodia, Thailand, the temple itself, the Library of Congress, the library and archives in France. And along the way it just kept underlining that to me, it is a very important place in the historical heritage of Cambodia. And it plays such an interesting role during the Cold War, during the Cambodian civil war, and today and in the trouble relation of the two countries.

VOA Khmer: So, why France?

John Burgess: Well, Cambodia was colonized by the French and it was the French who rediscovered Preah Vihear, but like Angkor it has never really been forgotten, the local people always knew it, it is there. But, starting in the 1880s, the French sent four different archaeological survey teams that went to Preah Vihear, and documented it, and surveyed it, and started cleaning away the jungle and trying to repair the place because it had been a place essentially abandoned for hundreds of years.

VOA Khmer: Back in 2013, the ICJ made a ruling affirming Cambodia’s claim on Preah Vihear, do you think the ruling was decided correctly or do you have any particular thoughts after sifting through the massive amount of documents that you did?

John Burgess: Well, in 1962, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled that the temple belonged to Cambodia, and Thailand occupied it at that time. The court ruled that Thailand must withdraw from the temple and its quote on quote “the vicinity, it did not define what it mean by vicinity” and the issue of the most recent case was what the “vicinity” is. The Cambodians essentially said that the Thais did not withdraw far enough and the Thais essentially said we did withdraw from the vicinity that was defined in the 1962 (map) as essentially the footprint of the temple and 100 meters of land on the one side, and a little more on the other side.

In 2013, the court ruled that in fact Thailand should recognize that the vicinity mean the four geographic promontories on which Preah Vihear stands. The Thais should withdraw a little bit further. But, the court did not specify exactly how far. It said that Thai and Cambodia should get together and decide where would be the northern line beyond which the Thais would withdraw. That was a year and half ago, Thailand has said it will discuss with Cambodia where this line lies and will abide by the decision, but not yet.

VOA Khmer: So, no progress on that?

John Burgess: So far, there has been no discussion. Cambodia is choosing to bide its time and waiting for when the Thais are ready to discuss this.

VOA Khmer: Looking into the future, how do you think that discussion is going to go?

John Burgess: Well, hard to predict the future, but certainly things have been a lot better than they were and we have seen peace in the temple for four years now. The two governments are getting along together in the way they haven’t before. They do enjoy tourism development. There is not a ton of tension in the relationship for a long time. But this issue is very emotional on both sides, and if the two sides do come together to negotiate, it is going to take some real patience and compromise from both sides, I would say.

VOA Khmer: Why the huge amount of tension over this temple? I understand that it is beautiful and on the top of this great cliff but there has to be something else going on here?

John Burgess: Well, in Cambodia, the temple was a key part of the glory of the Khmer empire, and anyone who visits it will recognize that. There has also been a historical territorial tension with Thailand going back for centuries. Cambodians viewed this temple as the latest sort of focus of that historical tension with Thailand. On the Thai side, it is a question of territory. Thailand had for decades and they essentially controlled the temple until it was forced by the French to give it up a little bit more than a century ago. That’s the basic dynamic driving both countries.

VOA Khmer: Any prediction for the future, as far as the stability is concern, do you think this peace is going to last or do you think the border tension might be flared back up in the future?

John Burgess: Well, whenever you have barbed wire and heavily armed military police facing each other, there will always be a danger. But, we have had stability and peace there for four years, and some hundred thousand tourists from Cambodia visiting per year. But, some embassies continue to advise their citizens not to go to Preah Vihear because the potential for trouble, and until we can remove the barbed wire, I mean it’s a great tragedy. This great site of human creativity and universal heritage is a conflict zone and until we can remove the guns and remove the barbed wire, there is not going to be real peace in this place.

VOA Khmer: Do you think that the Thai realizes that maybe they are fighting a losing battle?

John Burgess: Well, the Thais at this point also decided to put the issue on hold. There was a time a year ago when it was a big issue in Thailand and it was one of the prime issues the opposition was using and sort of trying to shame the government at that time to be tough on Cambodia. We don’t have that dynamic in Thai politics anymore. So, the issue has never been as big in Thailand as it is in Cambodia. In Cambodia, everyone knows Preah Vihear, and is very proud that it is a Cambodian temple. In Thailand, there are some people, maybe less than half who know about this place and who care about it enough to want it, to care about what the ultimate outcome is. But, for now, the issue is sort of on hold in both countries and the next step is for the negotiation about where exactly the line marking of the vicinity of the Preah Vihear temple will be.

VOA Khmer: Do you think that will be a new book?

John Burgess: Maybe an update to the book, it could be the next chapter to book. My book goes as far as the ICJ hearing of 2013, but this place has an amazing history and we have not seen the last chapter of that history, whatever it might be.

VOA Khmer: I am excited to see what it is! Any current projects that you are working on?

John Burgess: Well, I write history and I write historical fiction. I am working on a new novel, set at Preah Vihear in the 12 century. It’s built around a family which escorts pilgrim up an ancient stairway, it goes from the plain below all the way up to the temple. A family who has a sort of hereditary function of escorting pilgrims up this very, very steep stairway which is still there, mostly in the ruin stage. And the family becomes involved in the succession struggle at the top and who is going to be the next ruler of the temple. That is my next project.

VOA Khmer: Sounds very interesting. Well, thank you so much for being with us here today, John, at VOA.

John Burgess: Very welcome, thank you for having me.

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