The Former Sex Slave Who Fooled The World

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Somaly Mam
Somaly Mam

On a blustery autumn evening in 2011, a slim, striking Cambodian woman called Somaly Mam swept into a lavishly appointed New York City ballroom, metres from the Hudson River on Manhattan's West Side. Wearing a fuchsia one-shouldered gown, her long hair worn in a loose chignon, the human rights activist was embraced by Czech supermodel Petra Nemcova and warmly welcomed by music mogul Russell Simmons and Oscar-winning actress Susan Sarandon.

Later, as waiters glided between tables, depositing plates of roast beef and fingerling potatoes, the gathering of philanthropists and celebrities marvelled at the stories of the two sex trafficking survivors who'd just stepped off stage. The young women owed their presence at this glittering soiree, if not their lives, to Mam's eponymous Somaly Mam Foundation, an organisation created to eradicate the trafficking of girls and women into the sex trade.

For Mam, by now a superstar whose supporters included Hillary Clinton and Oprah Winfrey, the lavish auditorium was a long way from the squalid Phnom Penh brothel in which she, herself, had reportedly endured years of rape and torture decades earlier.

"You know, after my childhood I have been sold into a brothel for when I was around nine or 10 years old," she once told a White House event. "After ... more than 10 years in the brothel, I escape in 1990 and then I am able to find the foundations helping the girls and the victims on the fieldwork," she told the high-level audience that included Gayle Smith, special assistant to President Barack Obama.

By any measure, Mam had undergone a stunning metamorphosis. Now, when she wandered through Cambodia's impoverished villages (her fame necessitating she wear a baseball cap and sunglasses), her ability to migrate between dusty streets of her youth and the hip social circles of New York or Beverly Hills was apparently seamless.

Mam's global profile and compelling story earned her plaudits from around the world. TIME magazine once declared her one of the 100 most influential people of the year and CNN declared her a "hero".
Somaly Mam was now an author, a household name, a role model recognised and supported by governments, the media and the millions who poured funds into her cause.

But she was also not the person everyone thought she was.

Less than three years after that Manhattan gala, the 44-year-old activist resigned from the foundation she helped create - and which, it must be said, had raised millions for a very worthy cause. But in the end, not even she could escape her own PR-driven, poorly memorised web of lies.

Somaly Mam's rise to the forefront of the anti-sex trafficking movement began in 1996 when she co-founded AFESIP, or Agir Pour Les Femmes en Situation Precaire (roughly translated as Acting for Women in Precarious Situations). Two years later, she was featured in a documentary on the France 2 television channel.
The program propelled her into the spotlight. In 1998, Mam won Spain's Prince of Asturias Award for International Cooperation and she would later shake hands with the Pope and carry the Olympic flag during the opening ceremony of the Winter Games in Turin, Italy, in 2006.

In 2005, Mam released her autobiography, The Road Of Lost Innocence, which would go on to become a best-seller and be translated into more than a dozen languages. It is perhaps this sole piece of work that contributed most to her international stardom.

The book tells the story of how Mam was abducted as a young child from her tribal village in Mondulkiri province and forced into domestic servitude at the hands of a man she only calls "grandfather." Brought to Thloc Chhroy, an idyllic village on the banks of the Mekong river, the book recounts how Mam was raped by a Chinese merchant, made to drop out of school at 14 due to a forced marriage with a soldier, and eventually trafficked to Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital, where she spent years in a brothel, falling victim to more rape and torture.

The gruesome tale was hailed worldwide and inspired dozens of celebrities, as well as Queen Sofia of Spain, to publicly support Mam's cause.

"I want to acknowledge Somaly Mam, who is a survivor, who was a TIP [Trafficking in Persons] Report hero in 2005, and who is a hero every day in helping women and girls who have been abused to try to get their lives back," said US Secretary of State John Kerry last year at the release of the government's Trafficking in Persons Report.

It's certainly a horrifying story - but it was news to those in her childhood village of Thloc Chhroy. Local officials, teachers and childhood acquaintances there insist Mam grew up in the village with her parents, not the mysterious "grandfather" figure that appears in her book. They say she received her highschool diploma and then, at 16, travelled to the provincial capital, Kampong Cham, to sit a teacher-training exam. Sold to a brothel as a child? Or an ordinary Cambodian teenager who attended school and dreamt of being a teacher? The truth is still emerging.

Doubts about Mam's story first surfaced in 2012 after she admitted to making inaccurate comments about the Cambodian army killing eight girls who had been staying at one of her refuges.

Recently, the Somaly Mam Foundation in New York hired the international law firm Goodwin Procter to investigate claims Mam's autobiography was largely a work of fiction. The firm was also asked to investigate whether or not the life stories of two of Mam's most high profile victims of sex trafficking had also been fabricated.

One of those women is Meas Ratha, now a mother of one in her early 30s, who runs a mobile cart selling rice and pork on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.

Last year, Ratha timidly told the story of how Mam had selected her from a group of girls and coached her to relate a fabricated tale of sexual slavery for the 1998 French television documentary. "Somaly said that ... if I want to help another woman I have to do [the interview] very well," she told me in an interview last year.

The other woman is Long Pros - she has since changed her name to Somana - who, in 2009, told her story of sexual slavery to The New York Times so that people could know the brutalities of human trafficking. The report said a woman had kidnapped Pros and sold her to a brothel in Phnom Penh, where she was tortured with electric wires and forced to endure two "crude abortions" before having her eye gouged out with a knife by an angry pimp.

Pros's family, neighbours and medical records all tell a different story: that a doctor by the name of Pok Thorn performed surgery on Pros when she was 13 to treat a nonmalignant tumour covering her right eye. Photographs in Pros's medical records clearly show the young girl's eye both before and after the removal of the tumour, which had developed in childhood.

In Meas Ratha's case at least, the reporter who filmed the 1998 documentary about Mam is sticking by his original story. "I don't have any doubt about the testimony of Ratha," said Claude Sempere after learning of the rumours surrounding one of his interviewees. "What would have been the interest of Somaly to ask this girl in particular to do a wrong testimony?"

John Lowrie, who sits on the board of the Cambodian human rights organisation LICadho, and has "serious doubts" about Mam's claimed hill tribe heritage, has a theory: "The truth is we are all guilty of embellishing narratives because everyone concerned wants to see good impact for the money to keep coming in. The question is: when does embellishment become blatant dishonesty? And who should determine that?"

In Mam's case, it is impossible to know where the lies end. In 2012, she admitted that she had made false claims in her speech to the UN General assembly in which she said eight girls she rescued from the sex industry had been killed by the Cambodian army after they raided her organisation's shelter in 2004. Rather, local news reports at the time reported Mam saying roughly 90 women and girls had been abducted from her shelter in Phnom Penh by armed men driving sports utility vehicles. The government denied her claims, stating instead that the women had escaped of their own accord after relatives surrounded the shelter and demanded their release.

Police officials, rights workers and Mam's former husband, Pierre Legros, have also strongly denied claims by Mam that human traffickers kidnapped her 14-year-old daughter in 2006 and videotaped her being gang-raped in retaliation for Mam's humanitarian work. They say she had actually run away with her boyfriend.
Former French police officer Christian Guth, who worked as an advisor to Cambodia's Interior Ministry until 2010, recalls meeting Mam and Legros in 1995. Back then, he remembers a FESIP doing the sort of work that very few others were doing. They went out of their way to provide shelter to victims despite their limited resources. But at some point the organisation switched focus, concentrating on fund- raising campaigns abroad rather than the highly nuanced problem of trafficking on the ground. "For the Americans, [Mam] says Americans want to hear that she is a hero, she is clean, and the police is corrupt," said Guth.Now a much wider debate has emerged about the dangers of hyper- bolic fundraising campaigns, society's preoccupation with charismatic leaders and horror stories, not to mention the highly charged issue of sex trafficking.

Annette Lyth, the Bangkok-based regional project manager for United Nations action for Cooperation against Trafficking in Persons, says the global discussion around sex trafficking has become far too hysterical. "The pitch is very high and very emotional," she says. "[It] has created quite a difficult climate to have any sort of long-term realistic discussion about trafficking and what to do about it."

Lyth says the discussion on sex trafficking should be focused on better education for girls, stricter migratory controls and economic opportunity, rather than rescue operations. Simple stories of good versus evil "undermine long-term work", she says. "Everybody has to take their share of the blame in this, including journalists, in order to see what is needed and what's going on."

As the debate rages, experts say data on the total number of women and girls trafficked into the sex industry in Cambodia is often inflated due to strongly held abolitionist views that all sex work is the result of trafficking.

While girls continue to be trafficked into the sex trade, few are being held in cages receiving electric shocks. Experts say the sex industry is, to a large extent, made up of girls and women working in establishments such as karaoke parlours who became prostitutes voluntarily or naively for a lack of economic opportunity elsewhere - and may have fallen into exploitative circumstances as a consequence.

"My experience covering some of these NGOs is that they don't really want to have that critical debate; it's not what they're in the business of," says Melissa Gira Grant, author of Playing The Whore: The Work Of Sex Work. "To have this debate, they need to move beyond the charismatic-leader-with- the-perfect-sob-story model of talking about their work to a more nuanced political analysis of what's going on."

The question remains: just what lies at the heart of Mam's dishonesty?

"The fame was getting to her head. The glamour, the travelling around the world, and the money is something that someone can get intoxicated with," says Chhun Sophea, who worked with Mam and travelled with her to the US when she appeared on The Tyra Banks Show in 2008. "She got on the road of fame and then she couldn't get off again."

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