Farcical furore over Cambodian activist

opinion June 05, 2014 00:00

By The Nation

"Exposed" for lying about her past to attract attention for her fight against Child trafficking, Somaly Mam quickly resigned; Thai politicians should take heed

Many involved in trafficking children for sex will be breathing easier now that leading Cambodian activist Somaly Mam is out of the way. Accused by US magazine Newsweek of lying about her background and fabricating stories to gain attention and funding for her cause, she resigned late last month as head of the US-based anti-trafficking non-profit foundation that bears her name.

Headlined “Sex, slavery and a slippery truth”, the exposé in Newsweek’s May 30 edition details inconsistencies and falsehoods in Mam’s claim that she was abused and sold into slavery as a girl. The article was based on a series of investigations into her background, the results of which were published in the Cambodia Daily.

The Somaly Mam Foundation announced it had hired an independent law firm in March to look into Mam’s personal history. “As a result of Goodwin Procter’s efforts, we have accepted Somaly’s resignation effective immediately,” came a statement from the foundation.

Mam’s autobiography, “The Road of Lost Innocence”, was published in 2005 and quickly became an international hit. She co-founded the Somaly Mam Foundation in 2007, and two years later she was ranked among Time magazine’s 100 most influential “heroes and icons”. The story of a childhood in sex slavery and her escape to join the fight against the practice has drawn politicians and celebrities to her cause, helping raise millions for the foundation.

Seeking inspiration, many people are eager to believe tales of heroism. And many are willing to take advantage by furnishing fiction about their past in order to gain attention and renown. Some concoct a tale of woe because they know it will elicit sympathy and assistance. Of course there’s always the risk of being exposed and shamed, but they feel the potential rewards make it worthwhile.

People assume that activists doing such important work as Mam are good and honest. Few of us would question the motives of do-gooders. Maybe Mam felt that the ends justified the means. At least she had good cause to be lying about her past, although taking advantage of people’s sympathy and trust cannot be condoned.

Thailand has witnessed similar cases of people lying in order to gain attention, sympathy and even support. Many of them are in the political circle and have been widely blamed for the conflict that has gripped the country for over a decade. Such politicians buy and lie their way into Parliament, where they continue to violate basic principles in order to remain in power. They feed their supporters lies and exaggerations and use them as weapons against their critics and political rivals.

Such practice causes far more damage than an activist who lies about her past in order to get attention and funding. Our unscrupulous lawmakers are exposed repeatedly for wrongdoing – by the mass media and even by the courts – but, unlike the Cambodian activist, they refuse outright to “resign”, even for the betterment of Thailand. It seems the principles of honour and accountability that civil society retains no longer have any place in Thai politics.