Gina Reiss-Wilchins, executive director of the seven-year-old Somaly Mam Foundation, which works primarily in Mam’s home country of Cambodia, issued a statement saying that Mam’s resignation came after an extensive two month investigation by the law firm Goodwin Procter LLP.
The statement didn’t provide details on the investigation’s findings but the law firm probed allegations of falsehoods in Mam’s autobiography, including assertions that she had been sold into sexual slavery at an early age and spent years in a brothel before escaping a life of prostitution.
Reiss-Wilchins said the foundation also was severing all ties with a woman named Somana, also known as Long Pros, an alleged victim of sex trafficking who claimed to have been rescued by Mam and then joined her in her work. The law firm’s investigation raised questions about the veracity of Pros’ personal story—which she told on Oprah Winfrey’s popular television talk show and in the PBS documentary “Half the Sky”–that she had been kidnapped, sold to a brothel, tortured, forced to undergo abortions and had an eye gouged out by an abusive pimp before being saved by Mam.
The developments at the Somaly Mam Foundation came a week after a May 21 cover story in Newsweek titled “Somaly Mam: The Holy Saint (and Sinner) of Sex Trafficking.” The subtitle was “Sex, Slavery & A Slippery Truth.”
Written by Simon Marks, a journalist who had been raising questions about Mam since 2012, the story provides a damning litany of falsehoods allegedly perpetrated by Mam and some of the women she claims to have rescued.
Although sometimes the dates varied in the telling, the core narrative of Mam’s heartbreaking story, often delivered in public and contained in her 2005 autobiography “The Road of Lost Innocence,” is simple.
Mam, who believes she was born around 1970, claims that an abusive man she calls “Grandfather” found her as an orphan and turned her into a domestic slave around the time she was 9 years old. According to the Newsweek story, “He eventually sold her as a virgin to a Chinese merchant and then forced her to marry a violent soldier when she was just 14. She was later sold to a brothel in Phnom Penh, where she recalls being tortured with electrodes hooked up to a car battery.”
Mam has said she stayed in the brothel for up to a decade before she met a French biologist named Pierre Legros in 1991 and left her life of prostitution. She and Legros married and relocated to France before returning to Cambodia in 1994.
In 1996, Mam, Legros and a friend founded Agir Pour Les Femmes en Situation Précaire (AFESIP), which translates into Helping Women in Danger, an NGO devoted to fighting sex trafficking and caring for its victims.
After a France 2 documentary in 1998, Mam became a global celebrity and the recipient of numerous awards for the work her organization did. In her statement, Reiss-Wilchins expressed the disappointment of the foundation over the current situation but noted, “We have touched the lives of over 100,000 women and girls. We have treated nearly 6,000 individuals at a free medical clinic in Phnom Penh’s red light district and engaged nearly 6,400 students in anti-trafficking activism.”
Much of the organization’s success stemmed from Mam’s charismatic presence and the lurid story she told of a childhood destroyed by sex trafficking.
However, the Newsweek article raises several questions about that story, questions the legal investigation apparently also uncovered.
For example, Mam claimed she was an orphan taken away by “Grandfather” and sold into sexual slavery and that she spent up to 10 years in a Phnom Penh brothel. But, according to Newsweek interviews with childhood friends, teachers, neighbors and local officials in the village of Thloc Chhroy, where she grew up, the timeline doesn’t add up.
A former commune chief in the village said he remembers the day that Mam arrived there as a child in the company of both her parents.
No one, not even a cousin of Mam’s mother, recalls ever seeing “Grandfather.”
A childhood friend, the former director of the local high school, the current commune chief and his two predecessors all recall Mam attending village elementary and high schools between 1981 and 1987, when she would have been 11 to 17-years-old.
Mam herself has delivered various accounts of when she was sold into sexual slavery, Newsweek reported. Speaking at the White House in 2012, she said she was sold into slavery at the age of 9 or 10 and spent 10 years in the brothel. On “The Tyra Banks Show” she said she spent four or five years in the brothel and her published autobiography says she was trafficked when she was about 16 years old.
There are other discrepancies. In 2012, Newsweek said, Mam admitted lying in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly in which she claimed eight girls she had rescued from sex traffickers were killed in 2004 by the Cambodian army after a raid on her shelter for victims.
Rights workers and police officials, including the former head of the government’s anti-human trafficking department, have denied claims by Mam that traffickers kidnapped her 14-year-old daughter in 2006 in retaliation for Mam’s work and videotaped the girl being gang-raped. Mam’s ex-husband Pierre Legros and Aarti Kapoor, a former legal adviser to AFESIP, both say the girl was not kidnapped but ran away with her boyfriend.
As for Long Pros, also known as Somana and profiled by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof in 2009, Newsweek found she had never been a victim of sex trafficking. Her family and medical records also show that her eye was not gouged out by an angry pimp but operated on by a surgeon for removal of a non-malignant tumor when she was 13.
Pros came to AFESIP not as a sex trafficking survivor but after the then-director of Cambodia’s Takeo Eye Hospital asked if the organization would admit Pros to one of its vocational programmes.
In her statement, Reiss-Wilchins said that although the foundation will remove Pros from any official affiliation with the organization, it “will help her to transition into the next phase of her life.”
Somaly Mam declined to be interviewed for the Newsweek article and issued no statement on Wednesday.
In 2009, Nicholas Kristof wrote in The New York Times about a girl named Long Pross, who had finally summoned the strength to tell her stunning story of sexual slavery. He reported that a woman had kidnapped Pross and sold her to a brothel, where she was beaten, tortured with electric wires, forced to endure two crude abortions and had an eye gouged out with a piece of metal by an angry pimp. Pross, Kristof said, was rescued by Mam and became part of her valiant group of former trafficking victims fighting for a world free of sexual slavery.
Pross also told her disturbing story on Oprah and appeared in the PBS documentary Half the Sky. “Believe it or not, when I returned home, my mother and father didn’t want me around. I wasn’t considered a good person,” she says in the documentary.
Equally hard to believe is the fact that Pross’s family, neighbors and medical records all tell a different story. Dr. Pok Thorn says he performed surgery on Pross when she was 13, after her parents brought her to a hospital with a nonmalignant tumor covering her right eye. Photographs in her medical records clearly show the young girl’s eye before and after the surgery.
So how did she come to be one of Somaly Mam’s girls? Te Sereybonn, director of Cambodia’s Takeo Eye Hospital back then, says his staff contacted AFESIP to see if they could admit Pross to one of their vocational training programs.
Another of Mam’s biggest “stars” was Meas Ratha, who as a teenager gave a chilling performance on French television in 1998, describing how she had been sold to a brothel and held against her will as a sex slave.
Late last year, Ratha finally confessed that her story was fabricated and carefully rehearsed for the cameras under Mam’s instruction, and only after she was chosen from a group of girls who had been put through an audition. 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 [the interview] very well.”
She, like Pross, was never a victim of sex trafficking; she and a sister were sent to AFESIP in 1997 because their parents were unable to care for all seven of their children.
Interviews with Mam’s childhood acquaintances, teachers and local officials in the village where she grew up contradict important, lurid details in her autobiography. Many of the villagers in Thloc Chhroy say they never met or even saw Mam’s cruel “Grandfather,” the rich Chinese merchant who allegedly raped her or the violent soldier she says she was forced to marry.
Orn Hok, a former commune chief, remembers well the day Mam arrived in the village, noting, “Somaly came here with her parents. She is a daughter of Mam Khon and Pen Navy.”
Pen Chhun Heng, now in her 70s, says she is a cousin of Mam’s mother and rejects the notion that Mam was adopted or that she was raised (or kept) by “Grandfather.”
Sam Nareth, a childhood friend of Mam’s, says Mam first attended school in the village in 1981 and remained there until she got her high school diploma. “She finished secondary school in 1987, and Somaly and I went to sit the teachers exam in Kompong Cham together.”
Thou Soy, who was the director of Khchao High School in Thloc Chhroy, distinctly remembers Mam attending classes between 1981 and 1987, as does the current commune chief, Thorng Ruon, and his two predecessors. Mam was well-known and popular in their small village, a happy, pretty girl with pigtails.
Not even Mam can keep the story straight. In February 2012, while speaking at the White House, she said she was sold into slavery at age 9 or 10 and spent a decade inside a brothel. On The Tyra Banks Show, she said it was four or five years in the brothel. Her book says she was trafficked when she was “about 16 years old.”
Mam’s confusion isn’t limited to her book, or the backstory for some of “her girls.” In 2012, she admitted—after being confronted with some of my early reporting—that she had made false claims in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly in which she said eight girls she had rescued from the sex industry were killed by the Cambodian army after a raid on her shelter in 2004.
Rights workers and police officials, including Deputy National Police Chief Lieutenant General Un Sokunthea, who was head of the Interior Ministry’s anti-human trafficking department in 2004, and a senior official at the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Phnom Penh, have also strongly denied highly publicized claims by Mam, in Glamourmagazine and The New York Times, that traffickers kidnapped her 14-year-old daughter in 2006 and videotaped the girl being gang-raped in retaliation for Mam’s work. Legros and Aarti Kapoor, a former legal adviser to AFESIP, both say the young girl was never kidnapped; instead, they say, she had run away from home with her boyfriend.
Legros, who split from Mam in 2004 and lost custody of their children in Cambodia, now says he is not surprised that the truthfulness of her autobiography is being questioned. And although he brokered the book deal and selected the ghostwriter, he denies helping Mam make up her stories. He adds, however, that “I did not search the truth. My objective was that she felt good with herself.”
Many of the people who have been charmed by Mam refuse to believe that she is anything other than what she claims to be. They talk of how inspiring she is and how holy her mission is. Fashion photographer Norman Jean Roy, who in 2008 documented Cambodia’s sex trade and shot some heartrending portraits of Long Pross, once said of Mam, “One of the things that’s unique about her is that she has this almost saint-like quality about her when she walks into a room, when she walks around the children.”
But those who have worked with Mam in Cambodia say there is a vast difference between the image she puts forward in the media spotlight and the one she shows in Phnom Penh. “[With donors], she’s very polished and very on and very charming…exceedingly charming,” says Candace Blase, who worked as a volunteer psychologist for AFESIP in 2011. “And when people are not there, she can be tyrannical; she’s moody, she’s erratic, she’s entitled.” Blase adds that she saw Mam ordering the girls she looks after to carry out personal chores for her.
Another former employee of the Somaly Mam Foundation in Cambodia recalls conversations with Mam in which she said she was invincible. “She feels unstoppable. She used to talk to me about wanting to put things in people’s food and how easy it would be to poison someone.
“It was such a traumatic and hostile environment,” the former employee continues. “We were treated very much in a hostile and aggressive way. You’re either part of the group or you’re not, and if you’re not part of the group, bad things can happen to you. And that was said in sometimes very direct terms.”
Former employees in Cambodia of both AFESIP and the foundation admit they knew about some of the questionable techniques used to raise awareness and funding, but they say nobody spoke up due to a mixture of fear of Mam and threats from others. “Why does everybody keep quiet about everything?” Blase asks. “I think it’s very hard to accept that a woman who is in a nurturing position, which she sort of is, has the capacity to be the way Somaly is.… People keep their mouths shut because it’s in their own self-interest to do so.”
Daniela Papi, founder of PEPY, an organization that promotes education and youth leadership, argues that those doing heroic aid work become immune to criticism. “Most people want to believe that people are good,” she says. “We see this hero and we buy into the hero, and actually the person we are defending is ourselves. It’s not them anymore, it’s yourself for being duped.”
According to a close acquaintance of Mam’s in Phnom Penh, who insisted on remaining anonymous for fear of retribution, there have been doubts about Mam’s life story for years, but “it’s all about image, getting to the big shot who has a lot of money and who feels sorry for this kind of story. They’re very successful, and they have been very successful in an incredible way because they connect with the right people, and they have all the movie stars, famous rock stars and famous people supporting them, and [all those people] are still being taken for a ride now.”