Somaly Mam

The road to lost prominence

Somaly Mam was one of the world’s leading figures in the fight against human trafficking. But following a Newsweek article that accused her of fabricating parts of her life story, Mam’s reputation was left in tatters. Now she is on the comeback trail

David Hutt
November 10, 2014
Somaly Mam
Mother figure: Somaly Mam cradles an 18-day-old baby during a visit to a brothel in Phnom Penh’s Toul Kork district. Photo: Bernado Salce

Somaly Mam, holding boxes of OK condoms in one hand and K-Y Jelly in the other, sat in a Phnom Penh brothel surrounded by a dozen or so sex workers. For more than 30 minutes she had been laughing and joking with the women, demonstrating the camaraderie she enjoys with those she calls either her “girls” or her “daughters”. However, when a woman arrived with an 18-day-old child wrapped in a towel, it was time for the women to talk and Mam to listen.

Each of them took a turn. Some told her about personal problems; others shared local gossip. Mam had not visited this small community for two weeks and, as they spoke, she let out anguished sighs. “They have so many problems. They all want me to help,” she said. 

The woman with the baby needed milk. One of Mam’s aides handed some dollar bills to another of her staff members, who returned minutes later with a carrier bag loaded with milk cartons, which were divided between the mothers. Although the women accepted the condoms and milk, the majority were more interested in one particular topic. “They all want to know what has happened to the clinic,” Mam said. “If we told them we’ve closed it, they wouldn’t know how to take it. I don’t want to give them more problems.”

In 1996, Mam and her now ex-husband, Pierre Legros, established Agir Pour Les Femmes en Situation Précaire (Afesip). Until a few months ago, the NGO had operated a clinic in Phnom Penh’s Toul Kork district that provided access to free contraceptives, HIV tests and counselling. However, the clinic is now closed – a consequence of Mam’s fall from grace and her charity’s subsequent financial collapse. 

Somaly Mam, the activist, international fundraiser and celebrity magnet, was one of the world’s most respected and compelling anti-trafficking activists. Included in Time’s ‘100 most influential people’ list in 2009, her glittering catalogue of supporters and benefactors included Hillary Clinton, Queen Sofia of Spain, Meg Ryan and Angelina Jolie. She was invited to speak at the UN and the White House and, in 2005, released her autobiography. The Road of Lost Innocence became an international bestseller.

The book was a major factor in Mam’s meteoric rise to fame. In 2007, she helped establish the Somaly Mam Foundation (SMF), an NGO that worked as the fundraising arm of Afesip, collecting millions of dollars
in donations. 

However, Mam’s reputation crumbled in May when a Newsweek article accused her of fabricating parts of her own heart-rending life story and coaching others to do the same in the name of publicity and fundraising. Mam was reported to have lied about being forced into sex slavery by a man she called “grandfather”. Her claims of being forced to marry a violent soldier at the age of 14 and being sold to a Phnom Penh brothel were also called into question, along with many other details.

Her claims of being forced to marry a violent soldier at the age of 14 and being sold to a Phnom Penh brothel were also called into question, along with many other details.

The Newsweek article was the culmination of several years’ work by Simon Marks, previously the executive editor at the Cambodia Daily newspaper, which had published several of his stories criticising Mam and her foundation. But it was the article in the respected US magazine that sparked an international scandal.

The SMF also launched an inquiry into the claims, retaining the US law firm Goodwin Procter to carry out a third-party investigation – the findings have yet to be released to the public. 

Somaly Mam
Precautions: Afesip regularly provides contraceptives and other goods to Cambodian sex workers. Photo: Bernado Salce

The backlash was swift. Publications around the world labelled Mam a fraud, and her subsequent resignation from the SMF seemed to ratify the accusations. It also proved disastrous for Afesip, as the US-based SMF also severed its ties with the charity, meaning most of its funding disappeared. (On September 30 the foundation officially shut down its operations.) As a result, refuge centres were forced to cut the number of women being housed and educated, and some of Afesip’s staff will lose their jobs in the coming months, according to Mam. The charity also has deep financial problems, with Mam estimating its debts at $100,000.

An article published in Marie Claire in September attempted to defend Mam and debunk some of the accusations made in Newsweek. Three of the sources said they had been misrepresented, with one of them having been misquoted as being a woman. The damage, however, had been done. 

Nevertheless, as we walked to another brothel in Toul Kork, Mam was in good spirits. Wearing thick-rimmed sunglasses, and trailed by a busy team of staff, she exuded an aura not dissimilar to a visiting dignitary. Women from the community came to greet her and share a word. “She wants me to name the child,” said Mam, as another woman approached with a newborn. “I’ve named several children in the area.” 

Despite her openness and warmth with members of the community, Mam seemed determined to avoid speaking about the controversy. “I only care about my girls and my daughters,” she said. When Mam says “daughters”, she means her closest members of staff, including the dozen who resigned with her from the SMF and now live with her in Phnom Penh. “I don’t care about Newsweek and Simon Marks. I have no anger for them,” Mam added. “I know what is true.” 

When asked again the following day, during a sit-down interview, about the allegations that she fabricated large swathes of her life story, Mam stuck to her line. “It’s my story, I know the truth,” she said, before insisting that she is happy to be the one in the firing line. “I don’t care about my reputation, I only care about my girls and my daughters,” she repeated. 

“I believe my mother Somaly. I owe my life to her. If she didn’t save me, maybe I would be dead,” said Vann Sina, one of the ‘daughters’ in question. “I don’t understand what Simon Marks is doing. He took the dreams and hopes from the survivors. We survivors say don’t hate people, but I cannot forgive him.”

For those close to Mam, there is no doubt that Newsweek’s accusations are false. And even if they are not, it doesn’t matter. What matters are the people she helps. The ends justify the means.

For many others, however, the issue is less clear-cut. If Mam was lying, did she do so in order to help survivors of sex trafficking, or to line her own pockets? And even if it was the former, does it matter if she lied? 

Somaly Mam
Lend me your ears: Somaly Mam estimates that sex workers at this brothel in Phnom Penh earn about 10,000 riel ($2.50) a day. Photo: Bernado Salce

Somaly Mam has fulfilled two different roles for more than a decade. There is the (unqualified) social worker and activist in Cambodia, and the jet-setting international fundraiser. Even her staunchest critics do not contest her ability as an activist; her role as a global anti-trafficking icon is far more controversial.

This elegant, intelligent and determined woman was able to play the part well, earning respect and, perhaps more importantly, donations from celebrities, dignitaries and other donors. Mam did admit, though, that mistakes were made.

“When we set up the SMF in 2007,  I thought it would be a small thing. [It] grew too fast, and I didn’t agree with it. It was too much showing your face, too much Hollywood, too much stardom. I don’t like being in America. When I’m there, it’s not me.”

According to Mam, whose office is brimming with pictures of her posing with various celebrities, it was the two other founders of the SMF, Jared Greenberg and Nicholas Lumpp, who put her “under pressure” to expand the foundation, and it was her ex-husband who “convinced” her to write her autobiography. 

It is hard to believe that someone as independent and strong-minded as Mam was so easily manipulated. There is no doubt, however, that once the SMF was established, it created a formidable PR machine. Brandee Barker, Mark Zuckerberg’s former PR guru, was a board member, as was Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook.

Having decided to play ball, Mam’s international appearances were not only lucrative for her charity. According to SMF’s financial reports to the US Internal Revenue Service, her salary was $85,000 in 2009, $96,000 in 2010 and $125,642 in 2011. 

“Yes, I got a big salary,” said Mam. “Of course, I work so I have to be paid. I’m not a slave… And I have a big house. It has three bedrooms. But I’m happy to have a big house, because it can fit in all the girls. I have 12 girls staying with me.”

Her meticulously constructed image of a clean-cut, heroic activist, palatable for Western audiences, shot her to international fame. But it also made her descent that much more dramatic.

Her meticulously constructed image of a clean-cut, heroic activist, palatable for Western audiences, shot her to international fame. But it also made her descent that much more dramatic. Was Somaly Mam a victim of the modern fundraising business, or was she seduced by fame and fortune? Mam hinted at the answer by insisting that in the future things will be different.  

“From now on, I want the charity to be very small. I need to do something I know how to do, like focus on my country. Not much travelling, no more Hollywood or galas – if I can control it. I’m learning that it was too much before. Sometimes it was too flash,” she said.

Creating hope: women take part in a sewing lesson at an Afesip refuge centre in Phnom Penh. Due to budget cuts, the number of residents has dropped from 70 to 40. Photo: Bernado Salce
Creating hope: women take part in a sewing lesson at an Afesip refuge centre in Phnom Penh. Due to budget cuts, the number of residents has dropped from 70 to 40. Photo: Bernado Salce

Afesip’s latest PR campaign certainly pales in comparison to previous efforts. The New York publicist Scott Gorenstein, vice-president of Jonathan Marder and Company, is working for the NGO pro bono. In September, they relaunched social media pages and websites for Mam and Afesip, and also created the New Somaly Fund, a fundraising organisation for Afesip. “The inconsistencies, innuendos and inaccuracies in the [Newsweek] story, based upon selected sources, are reported without balance or context,” Gorenstein said in a press release at the time. “Somaly Mam wants her dignity and reputation restored.”

Frequent remnants of the NGO’s PR coaching were found during the days Southeast Asia Globe spent with Mam and her organisation. During a visit to a refuge centre on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, workers organised a meeting with a number of girls who would take turns sharing their stories. They all meticulously thanked Mam and Afesip in a session that felt like it wasn’t the first time they had opened their hearts for visitors. The following day, a similar gathering was organised with a dozen women whose university fees are being paid by the charity. 

It is common for NGOs to stage manage interactions with outsiders, although the staff’s insistence on referring to Mam as “my mother Somaly” was striking. On numerous occasions, they even corrected themselves, having forgotten the “my mother” prefix.

However, Afesip’s latest PR efforts certainly lack the professional sheen they once embraced. 

The homepage of Afesip’s website is a case in point. It features a letter written by Vann Sina containing unfounded, defamatory statements: “You, Simon Marks, used to live in Cambodia but you don’t understand what real Cambodian society looks like,” wrote Vann. “You are only among your expatriation [sic] community, happy and joyful. I wonder if you are one of the clients who buy sex? I have no doubt about it, that is why you don’t like us and [are] trying to destroy us.”

Mam has previously deflected accusations against her as being the result of cultural misunderstandings. When a number of former employees criticised her style of management, Western publications were quick to claim this as an indication of her bad temperament. According to Mam, she was only behaving like a typical Cambodian matriarch. 

“I am like any Cambodian mother – I just have a bigger family to care for,” she said. “I am very disciplined. I am very tough with the staff, because I’m not here to play – we have people to help. If you work for me, you have to work.” 

On another occasion, she was accused of lying to a UN panel, after she claimed that the Cambodian military had killed a number of girls during a raid on anAfesip centre. 

“I did not make false claims,” she said of the allegations. “Rather, I spoke unclearly as English is not my first language.”

“Cambodian and Western cultures are very different,” she added once again. “The problem is that some Westerners don’t understand us.” 

According to Mam, an example of this was during Marks’ investigation, in which he interviewed the father of Long Pros, one of the girls that Mam was accused of coaching to fabricate stories of sex trafficking, including the shocking story of Long Pros being stabbed in the eye by her pimp. (Marks reported that the wound was the result of a tumour that was removed by a doctor.)

“When he [Marks] went to her house and asked her father if she was a prostitute, it was such a shock. You cannot go to someone’s house and say their daughter is a prostitute. We don’t talk about that… families reject girls if they are prostitutes.”

It should be noted that Marks worked on the story with a number of respected Cambodian journalists. Also, Long Pros had recounted her story on The Oprah Winfrey Show and in the PBS documentary Half the Sky, broadcast in the US in October 2012.

It might also be the case that Mam does not understand some aspects of Western culture. She said she had learned that those in the West “like to bring people up and then bring them down – like a game”, although she refused to comment on the idea that if she had collected money from Western donors then perhaps she should have considered the exalted status of celebrities in the West, where strict moral standards are expected, and any sleight on their character is met with immediate and strenuous denials, rather than the silence observed by Mam.

“I’ve never had the chance to have my own life, not to be on the front of the news,” she said. “I will give myself four to five years. After that, I’m done.” 

Mam appears confident. Many of the supporters that used to donate to SMF, such as actress Susan Sarandon, have stuck by her and pledged further financial assistance for Afesip. “I have known them from the start of my career,” said Mam. “They are my friends; they continue to help me.” 

In a rare moment of reflection, Mam admitted that the stoic image she portrays to her girls and the media disappears when she is alone in her bedroom at night. There is no doubt the scandal has hit her hard: Her international reputation has been decimated and her charity has been forced to cut back its work. This will affect some of Cambodia’s most disadvantaged people – a side of the scandal often forgotten amid the blows being traded by both sides.  

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