On Sunday, authorities prevented US actress Mia Farrow and her Dream for Darfur organization from holding a torch-lighting ceremony at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh to raise awareness about the conflict in Sudan’s Darfur region. Cambodia was the last location on Dream for Darfur’s tour before the Beijing Olympics, having already held ceremonies on Darfur’s border in Chad as well as Rwanda, Armenia, Germany and Bosnia—all countries where genocide has been perpetrated. In an e-mail interview with The Cambodia Daily’s James Welsh, Farrow reflected on her visit to Cambodia, her reasons for choosing Tuol Sleng as the site for the Dream for Darfur ceremony and her treatment by Cambodian authorities.
Q: What happened in Phnom Penh on Sunday morning, and what effect did the day’s events have on your campaign?
A: On Sunday, a small group of us went to put flowers at Tuol Sleng. [I]n December we were granted a permit to hold the ceremony at Tuol Sleng, and only found out on Saturday—the day before the ceremony—that the permit had been officially revoked. We chose not to use a torch, because we felt that under these circumstances that might have been perceived to be provocative. And instead of 60 or 70 supporters who’d planned to join us, we decided that just eight of us would go to lay flowers as near to the memorial as was permissible. Sadly events unfolded in a way we did not anticipate or intend, and the focus became the police presence and obstruction rather than on the victims and survivors of genocide in Cambodia and Darfur.
Q: At any point did you consider calling the ceremony off?
A: We did consider calling the ceremony off—out of concern for the safety of those who had gathered there to participate. In the five other countries we have held our torch lightings we were welcomed and enjoyed the support and attendance of the community and the local authorities. We have had no experience with this sort of reception. We really didn’t know what to do. We decided on the morning of the event that we would not do the torch lighting, but instead lay lotus flowers to show our respect to the victims and survivors near the site.
Q: What was going through your mind as you approached the police blockade at Tuol Sleng?
A: As we approached the barricade we were surprised to see the heavy police and military presence. At no time did we have any intention of crossing any boundaries or intend to violate any of the restrictions the government had placed on us.
Q: Before you arrived in Cambodia, the government stated that it was opposed to your planned ceremony. Were you aware while planning to visit Cambodia that there would be opposition to your ceremony?
A: The day before we were scheduled to leave [for Cambodia] some press articles were brought to my attention, but we received no official notice from the government. And it was not clear that we were going to be prohibited from holding the ceremony. When we left New York we still had written permission so we assumed and hoped that it was a misunderstanding that we would resolve when we arrived in Cambodia.
Q: According to Dream for Darfur’s Web site, the focus of your campaign, which is to coincide with the Summer Olympics in Beijing, was to encourage China to use its influence over Sudan to halt the crisis in Darfur. Why was it denied that China was the focus of your Cambodian ceremony?
A: As we have traveled to each country to hold torch lighting ceremonies we have met with communities who have experienced genocide. In each country the priority has been to honor these victims of genocide, celebrate those who survived and underline the commitment to ending genocide everywhere. Since we have seen time and again the failure of governments to act, the overall goal has been to link communities of survivors everywhere to form a base of support to work to put an end to genocide and mass atrocities everywhere. In each country we have traveled to light a torch, we have been open to negotiations at our events. We recognize every country has sensitivities. If the issue is not raised as outright censorship, we have been very open to accommodation. In Armenia for instance, we did not even mention China, nor did we at our Bosnian torch ceremony. That said we have always been transparent about our campaign’s goal to link China, Darfur and the Olympics. It is inconsistent to suppose that China could host the Olympics at home and underwrite genocide in Sudan.
Q: During a press conference Sunday, you stated that the Chinese government tried to prevent you from commemorating the genocide in Cambodia. What information did you base that comment on?
A: At the press conference we did clarify China’s role. It was especially important to do that as China had just played such a major role in influencing our event…. We received this information from various trusted sources.
Q: The Cambodian government accused Dream for Darfur of using the victims of the Khmer Rouge as a “tool” to pressure China. What is your response?
A: I cannot believe Cambodian survivors could feel used by our presence or our event since we were there to honor them and those who perished. We came to Cambodia with that intention and with deepest respect.
Q: A senior government official also stated that he believed your cause to be “noble.” What do you think of that praise?
A: If the government in Cambodia believes our cause is noble then we are happy. But we wish the government had been more positive, since we would have loved their participation rather than to feel their rejection.
Q: There was a report Monday that you and your supporters attempted to break in to Tuol Sleng on Saturday evening. What actually happened?
A: My visit to Tuol Sleng on Saturday morning was deeply, profoundly upsetting; I think I will forever be haunted—especially by the faces of the children.
Our visit was scrutinized by undercover police as well as swarms of reporters and photographers. I was and am still struggling to compute what happened there.
So, later in the day, I asked to pay my respects quietly, privately, in the company of [artist and Tuol Sleng survivor] Mr Vann Nath and a translator. And so it was a shock when we three approached the guards and the venerable and gracious Mr Vann Nath was denied access to the site where he was tortured and where his agonizingly graphic paintings—depictions of human cruelty—are displayed. We left immediately and in silence. Dream for Darfur is writing a formal complaint to the news agency that picked [the story] up since it is completely inaccurate.
Q: There has been a long history in Hollywood of actors turning activists and speaking out for a variety of causes. What do you believe qualifies you to speak out about what is happening in Darfur?
A: I am not an expert but I have traveled to the Darfur region of Sudan and the neighboring country of Chad, home to thousands of refugees from Darfur, eight times since 2004 in an effort to understand more about the crisis there. It’s what I have witnessed over the course of these journeys that compels me to speak out and to do my uttermost in my own small way to bring about an end to the ongoing atrocities there. It does not take an expert to see China’s role in Sudan.
I knew nothing about China’s role in Cambodia until this trip. It was the Cambodian press that pointed out the relationship between China and the Pol Pot regime to us. Our own experience has shed light on the current relationship between the two countries.
Q: If you had to do the trip to Cambodia all over again, is there anything you would do differently?
A: I wish the Cambodian government had raised its issues with us in a constructive way so that we could have come to an understanding that would have allowed us to hold the ceremony peacefully. It would have been wonderful if we could have participated together.