Exposé of Cambodian activist who led international campaign threatens to overshadow fight against trafficking of children for sex
Hundreds of journalists have met Somaly Mam, a Cambodian who has waged an unceasing campaign against the trafficking of young girls for commercial sex. I got to know her back in October 2011.
Like others, I came away impressed by the iconic crusader and her compelling story – that she herself had been sexually abused, trafficked and traumatised, that she escaped her plight, and that she now rescues others and pursues sex traffickers like some vengeful Kali-like goddess.
I was in good company. Pulitzer Prize-winning Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times has been actively promoting her work since 2008, helping turn her into an international celebrity. Her 2005 autobiography, “The Road Of Lost Innocence”, had all the makings of a true-life Hollywood movie.
In it, Mam – now in her mid-40s – claims she was taken from her village by a man she called “grandfather”. He turned her into a slave, she wrote, and eventually sold her as a virgin to a Chinese businessman, who then forced her to marry a violent soldier when she was 14.
Later in the book, she tells of being sold to a brothel in Phnom Penh, where she worked for 10 years.
In 2009, Mam was one of Time magazine’s “most influential people”. In 2006, Glamour magazine made her Woman of the Year, and in 2007, the US State Department named her a Hero of Anti-Trafficking.
Charismatic and disarmingly blunt, she took to American TV studios like the proverbial duck to water. Almost everyone was bowled over.
Even a journalist of Kristof’s stature was flying her flag. He had spent so much time with her and chronicled her work, so one would assume that he had done the due diligence, right?
Last week, journalists and admirers of Mam learnt she had fabricated or embellished much of the life story that had been used to raise millions of dollars over a decade or so.
What hits hardest is that many of us were unwittingly complicit in helping her sell it. The signs were there.
The tale she told of her daughter having been kidnapped and raped by traffickers seeking vengeance against Mam sounded outlandish. It should have raised red flags.
The Cambodia Daily was among the sceptics. And Phnom Penh-based British journalist Simon Marks, 28, had been raising questions about Mam’s integrity since 2012, when she had to apologise to the United Nations for falsely claiming that the Cambodian army had shot dead rescued girls.
Marks actually visited Mam’s village, where he found that none of the elders knew anything about her story of having been sold and trafficked.
In a 2009 column, Kristof wrote of another girl, Long Pros, who had been kidnapped and trafficked to a brothel when she was 13. In it, he said she had been tortured there, became pregnant twice, was subjected to crude abortions and eventually lost an eye when the brothel owner beat her with a piece of metal for taking a break from work. She was rescued by a woman working for Mam.
Or so the story went.
Marks found a doctor who had treated the girl for a non-malignant tumour in her eye. Medical records confirmed it. The brothel story was a fabrication. The girl had gone to Mam’s foundation for vocational training.
Just last year, a girl called Meas Ratha – who told a French television network in 1998 that she had been sold to a brothel and turned into a sex slave and then rescued by Mam – confessed that not only was the story made up, but also that she had been coached by Mam.
In a cover story in the current issue of Newsweek, Marks writes: “Now in her early 30s and living a modest life on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Ratha says she reluctantly allowed herself to be depicted as a child prostitute: ‘Somaly said that… if I want to help another woman, I have to do very well’.
“Ratha, like Pros, was never a victim of sex trafficking; she and a sister were sent to [Somaly Mam’s] AFESIP foundation… because their parents were unable to care for all seven of the children.”
An investigation commissioned by the Somaly Mam Foundation seems to have concurred with Marks’ findings.
On May 28, the foundation posted on its website that as a result of an “independent, third-party investigation into allegations concerning the personal history of Somaly Mam and Somana (Long Pros)... we have accepted Somaly’s resignation effective immediately. In addition, we are permanently removing Pros from any affiliation with the organisation”.
Now, people are picking through the wreckage trying to find a lesson in it all. Writers and readers alike are assailing Kristof, demanding that he explain why he not only bought into her story but in effect joined her extended fan club, becoming a veritable public relations machine that opened the wallets of, among others, Manhattan and Hollywood celebrities.
There has always been muttering among the local and international aid communities in Phnom Penh over how Somaly Mam the screen version had become larger than Somaly Mam the woman. Many have questioned the “rescue industry” that she embodied.
The point is valid. Like Myanmar under the military, once-war-torn Cambodia seems to have an irresistible appeal for the international humanitarian community.
Yet, at what point does sustaining this humanitarian industry become more important than the objective itself, and more important to Westerners “rescuing” poor Third World girls than to the girls themselves?
Many in Phnom Penh directly or indirectly involved with the NGO community are happy that the real story is finally out in the open.
But many also are upset because “Somaly Mam & Co”, as one person put it, made the whole anti-sex trafficking movement look bad.
For journalists, the story illustrates the dangers of belief-bias – approaching a subject with a preconceived belief. If you believe someone is a saint, you don’t just expect to find evidence – you will find proof.
For anyone engaged in work that demands scrupulously objective investigation, there lies a professionally fatal trap.
On Monday, Kristof wrote on his blog: “I don’t know quite what to think.”
But after dwelling briefly on how conflicted he probably is, he wrote a thought worth echoing: “Let’s remember that this is about more than one woman.”
His words might have the ring of a desperate plea, but they are nevertheless true.
Allowing the saga of one woman to tarnish the good work done by so many others would be a pity. Women genuinely in need of help – and in Cambodia, there are many – should not have to pay the price for Somaly Mam.