US Ambassador Joseph Mussomeli expressed concern Monday about rumors that the government may stop a US-based group from holding a ceremony in Phnom Penh on Sunday to call attention to the ethnic conflict in Sudan’s Darfur region.
New York-based Olympic Dream for Darfur plans to light a symbolic Olympic torch at the Tuol Sleng genocide museum in a bid to bring attention to the crisis in Darfur ahead of Beijing’s Summer Olympic games.
China is a major Sudanese trade partner and Beijing has been accused internationally of not using its economic leverage to apply pressure on the Sudanese government to bring peace to Darfur, where an estimated 200,000 people have died since 2003.
According to a Dream for Darfur press release, US actress and human rights activist Mia Farrow is expected to attend the ceremony in Phnom Penh along with co-host Center for Social Development Executive Director Theary Seng, Toul Sleng survivor Vann Nath and Mussomeli.
“There is a rumor that the government may not allow [Dream for Darfur] to do the ceremony,” Mussomeli said by telephone on Monday.
“It would be disappointing if the government wouldn’t allow it,” he said, noting that he will host a reception at his house Saturday evening for those involved in the torch relay.
Sunday’s ceremony would not be critical towards China, he added.
“This is not directly against China in any way, otherwise we would not be involved with it,” Mussomeli said.
Information Minister and government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said Monday that he had been informed of the Dream for Darfur ceremony, but had no details.
“I am still looking into this organization,” he said.
However, Khieu Kanharith said that if the ceremony was found to be a type of demonstration against China, it was unlikely that it would be allowed.
“Usually we don’t allow any form of demonstration against any Embassy in Cambodia,” he said, adding that the government did not want a repeat of the 2003 anti-Thai riots in Phnom Penh.
“We learned from the Thai Embassy riots,” he said.
Khieu Kanharith added that it was wrong to accuse one country of causing the problems of another. “It’s easy to blame the other outsiders,” he said.
Officials at the Chinese Embassy could not be reached for comment Monday.
According to Dream for Darfur’s Web site, Cambodia is the last country to receive the torch before it heads to China. Since the torch relay began in August, ceremonies have been held in Darfur, Rwanda, Armenia, Germany and Bosnia—locations where genocide was perpetrated.
The Dream for Darfur press release states that “The symbolic Olympic Torch Relay is urging the Chinese government, as both Olympic host and Sudan’s strongest political and economic partner, to use its special influence with the Sudanese government to ensure a robust civilian protection force in Darfur.”
According to the Dream for Darfur Web site, the torch relay is to “galvanize people around the world to exert pressure on China to continue to use its influence to protect civilians.”
CSD Director Theary Seng said that despite Dream for Darfur’s statements on its Web site, Sunday’s ceremony was strictly about Darfur and not China.
“Here in Cambodia our focus is on Darfur and to honor genocide survivors,” she said. “This is not an occasion to shame anybody.”
Since August, Dream for Darfur has not responded to e-mailed requests for comment on its planned ceremony in Phnom Penh.
Former S21 prisoner Vann Nath said Monday that he was invited to attend the ceremony to show support for the people in Darfur.
“My participation is just for sharing sorrow for what the Darfur victims have suffered as I have experienced [this] myself,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Kuch Naren)