Cambodia's celebrity anti-trafficking activist and former victim Somaly Mam's stories blown out of the water by local journo
Somaly Mam, co-founder and president of the Somaly Mam Foundation. PHOTO: SOMALY.ORG
Local coverage of one of the international aid community’s most cherished heroes has uncovered some questionable stories.
As I write this, Lucy Liu is squeezing into gala attire and preparing to head out to a US$100,000 per table star-studded Manhattan fundraising event for the Somaly Mam Foundation.
As of press time, Ms. Liu’s publicist and agent have not responded to an email containing links to some rather unsettling news from the other side of the world.
In April of last year, a Cambodia Daily reporter named Simon Marks published a story in which celebrity anti-trafficking activist and author Somaly Mam admitted that she had misspoken when she told the UN General Assembly that eight women were murdered following a raid on her organization’s shelter four years earlier.
In the same story, her ex-husband and former colleague Pierre Legros refuted Mam’s public claim that their daughter had been kidnapped and gang raped on camera by traffickers seeking revenge.
The Somaly Mam Foundation’s Communications Team says Mam believes her daughter was kidnapped and filed a report to that effect at the time of the incident.
In an email this week, Georges Blanchard, director of Alliance Anti-Traffic Vietnam, wrote that Mam’s daughter told him she’d run off with her boyfriend. He insists the girl told the same story to her teachers at the French Middle School she attended.
“I’ve known [Somaly] since 1998,” he said. “Her husband is also a friend.”
Blanchard’s organization received $240,000 over the last four years from Mam’s Foundation, which raises millions every year for anti-trafficking activities throughout South East Asia. The former Cambodian sex slave turned aid worker has become a powerful voice for voiceless women and children throughout the region.
She’s beautiful and dynamic—prone to telling parachute journalists things like “you know if I have to return to the brothels because I know of nothing else to save my children, I would do it…I would do it.”
Mam’s been on Oprah. President Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have championed her efforts. Angelina Jolie loves her. Susan Sarandon does, too. Her chief spokeswoman, Brandee Barker, once ran the PR department at Facebook.
At this point, the biggest problem for Somaly Mam doesn’t appear to be flagging donor dollars or vengeful traffickers. It’s an NGO-backed newspaper in Phnom Penh.
Last week, journalist Marks published his second damning investigation into one of the survivor narratives the foundation presents to journalists, donors and members of the public.
He’d already dismantled the biography of a one-eyed woman named Long Pros, who traveled all over the world recounting a horrifying tale as part of the Foundation’s Voices for Change program.
In 2009, Nicholas Kristof published a story and video entitled “If this isn’t slavery, what is?” that put Pros into the pages of the New York Times.
Kristof regurgitated Pros’ gruesome tale, including the part when an evil madame gouges out her eye shortly after her second crude abortion.
“Pros’s eye grew infected and monstrous, spraying blood and pus on customers,” Kristof wrote.
Marks blew the lid off this whole thing by tracking down Pros’ family, neighbors and physicians, who revealed that the girl had developed an ocular tumor that was surgically removed in a hospital. Pros’ family claimed she was placed in the care of an organization headed by Somaly Mam in the hopes it would provide her with a better life.
The most amazing part of this whole thing is that Kristof doesn’t care about any of it.
“Nick isn't going to give a comment because it seems the reports are unrelated to the reporting and writing he has done on Somaly Mam,” his assistant wrote via email.
Mam’s Communications team appeared to suggest that the organization was misled. “The physical evidence, [Pros’] assurances and research into her accounts led us to believe them to be true,” they wrote in an email.
William Livermore, the former CEO of the Somaly Mam Foundation, says he believes the organization now tries to ensure that only consenting adults speak publicly about their experiences.
However in 2011 (Livermore’s final year at the organization), an 11 year-old girl tearfully recounted her three years in a Thai brothel before an audience of “about 1,000,” according to an article in the Phnom Penh Post. These and other tactics have raised the hackles of a number of anti-trafficking organizations, many of which appear to be competing for donor funds. Perhaps for this reason, it’s hard to find someone in the world with an objective view of Somaly Mam.
“The Cambodia Daily has never been historically fair with Somaly,” Livermore argued, stating that the paper’s recent critical breakdown of the foundation’s financial records didn’t take into account spending on “survivor empowerment,” which includes vocational training.
Marks didn’t respond to emails for comment.
Livermore said that during his five years with the organization, they made sure that roughly 75 cents to every dollar was spent on programming and every financial decision was evaluated and approved by the board of directors in New York.
“I never saw any inclination [for Mam to lie] in the five plus years I worked for her both as a volunteer and her CEO,” Livermore said, adding that she had rescued thousands of women from slavery and worked hard to create laws against trafficking in Cambodia
Last week, Marks published his most damning story of all. He quoted Meas Ratha, a wife and mother in Phnom Penh, as saying that Somaly Mam scripted a horrifying tale of sexual violence and got Ratha to narrate it as her biography for a French camera crew back in 1998.
“We don’t know why, nor will we speculate on why Meas Ratha has allegedly made the claims that Mr. Marks has reported,” her communications team wrote, via email.
Ratha’s mother, father and sister (who was also educated by the organization) insisted that she had never been exploited by anyone other than Somaly Mam.
This is a very sticky situation—one that many I contacted didn’t care to comment on. But the most astonishing thing about it is that it would appear these stories are all happening in a vacuum, read only by critical NGO insiders out here in Indochina.
If they’re being read in New York at all, they’re only being chalked up to sour grapes.
“It looks like the Cambodia Daily is on another witch hunt,” Livermore said.
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By Calvin Godfrey, Thanh Nien News (The story can be found in the October 25th issue of our print edition Vietweek)