PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Somaly Mam is fighting back, this time on her own behalf.
Not long ago, this elegant former prostitute was a global celebrity, a putative warrior against sex trafficking in her native Cambodia. She was feted by New York Times human rights columnist Nicholas Kristof and by A-list celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, Queen Sofia of Spain and actress Susan Sarandon.
She was lionized as a rare beacon of light in a hopeless world.
Last May, an article by Simon Marks in Newsweek devastated her reputation, apparently confirming rumors that Mam used fabricated stories to raise funds for her cause. The article also raises questions about the consistency of her own story and points out confusion over whether she was forced into slavery as a child. In 2012, she admitted that she had made false claims in her speech to the UN General Assembly in which she stated that eight girls were killed after a raid in her Phnom Penh shelter in 2004. Following the Newsweek story, Mam resigned from her foundation in the United States, but did not admit to fabricating stories.
More recently, in a Marie Claire article by Abigail Pesta, Mam has sought to restore her reputation. The article, billed as “Somaly’s Story,” contradicts the Newsweek investigation. Mam insists she did not lie, and that the stories in question were true.
Now, in his first interview since the Newsweek article, Mam’s ex-husband Pierre Legros speaks with GlobalPost about the controversy and the alleged fabrications.
Legros co-founded with Mam and another colleague the anti-trafficking organization AFESIP (a French acronym for Agir pour les Femmes en Situation Précaire, loosely translated as Acting for Women in Distressing Situations). He left the organization in 2004, as his marriage was falling apart, and following a controversy after AFESIP and the police raided one of Phnom Penh’s most high-profile hotels.
In Southeast Asia since the late 1980s, Legros first worked as a laboratory manager with Médecins Sans Frontières in UN refugee camps. In 1990, he was a technical adviser in Phnom Penh for the National Malaria Center (CNM). A year after he arrived in the city, he met Mam at Samaky, a popular beer garden. She was one of 30 prostitutes there. They fell in love and created AFESIP in 1995.
The following interview was conducted in French and has been translated, edited and condensed by GlobalPost.
GlobalPost: What do you think of this war of facts between Newsweek and Marie-Claire?
Pierre Legros: It is just more proof of how the media is shaping its own versions of the story and how a communications strategy takes over facts and reality.
I gave some information to Simon Marks [the reporter behind the Newsweek article]. It was proven right and led him to other allegations. He did his job as a journalist and verified the facts.
I have not met Abigail Pesta who wrote the Marie-Claire story and I am a bit more doubtful when it comes to her version, especially related to the kidnapping of our daughter Nieng, which I do not believe to be true. [Editor's update: Abigail Pesta points out in Marie Claire that Nieng told Pesta she was kidnapped.]
Anyway, the media must stop this war over a reality they apparently cannot seize. It is going too far and affecting our private lives. These are not fictional people we are speaking about here.
Moreover, I believe Newsweek and Marie Claire are just arguing about a minor problem. I do not understand why journalists are sticking to the fact that Somaly lied about her origins. Who cares?
What we really need to know is, as the director of one of the most well-known NGOs fighting against sexual trafficking, how honestly, fairly and legally did Somaly act? When you are an icon and an NGO director, people expect you to act with utmost probity. From what was published in Spain last year, there were mismanagement and sexual abuse allegations within a shelter in 2006. To me, this would be the real issue to investigate.
According to Somaly Mam, your daughter Nieng was kidnapped in 2006 after school in retaliation for Somaly’s work. Nieng was found by the police in Battambang, about 300 kilometers (180 miles) from Phnom Penh. The Newsweek article disputes this version of the story. Can you tell us exactly what happened?
In reality, Nieng is Somaly’s niece. Not our daughter. I raised and love her as my daughter and she has the same place in my heart as my other kids. This is why I am speaking today. I cannot let her privacy be invaded by media appetite.
[At] that time, Somaly and I were already separated. Nieng called me while she was away and I asked her to call her mother to let her know where she was. She called me for two or three days to give me some news and suddenly stopped. I did not have any news from her after this for a week. I was very worried and I did not know where she was. Somaly called me to let me know that the police found her, intoxicated, with two young men in a bar in Battambang. I remember very well making my way from Siem Reap — where I was living at this time — to Phnom Penh on my motorbike at night, to be there when she came back with Somaly from Battambang.
It was 6:00 a.m. Nieng was at her grandparents’ with Somaly. She could not really understand where she was and she was obviously intoxicated. I wanted to know if there was a chemical substance in her urine to prove whether she had been the victim of a manipulation. I asked Somaly to get some urine samples to know what she took. She never did it and Nieng never had any medical exam after this story, even if AFESIP could provide her with such service. But as our relationship with Somaly was deteriorating and very difficult at that time, I don’t know if there was any investigation opened. I never went to see the police because Somaly was connected to the police and I asked her to take care of this.
The articles are arguing over aspects of Somaly Mam’s childhood, as described in her book. Do you know the truth about it?
Somaly has at least two different versions of her biography. The French version was published in 2005 and is very much biased and doesn’t reflect the reality. For example, [according to that version] she is the only founder of the organization we founded in Cambodia in 1995. We were three who did it. Somaly was going in the brothels to gather information, our friend was helping with administrative requirements and later became the director of our first center in Phnom Penh, and I was looking for funds. We were a team.
The US version of the book is supposedly a translation of the French one. Well, it is absolutely not and the story has been completely rewritten. I am named as a “social worker” in this version. I never was a social worker.
Now, I also have to tell you that I do not know a lot of Somaly’s childhood. I can tell you I know her parents — the ones who are legally named as her parents on her birth certificate. She first introduced me to her father saying he was her uncle. She did the same with Nieng. She told me she was her daughter, while she is the daughter of her older sister. I never took it as a lie. But you know, in Cambodia, the relation to family is different and I think you have to be here to understand it.
And you can see she speaks of her “daughters” when speaking about the girls who are now in the center. So, I am not surprised to see there are some inconsistencies in her story.
When you all co-founded AFESIP, what was your fundraising strategy?
There was no policy. We had the idea to start an organization because in the early 1990s, prostitution, trafficking, HIV and drugs were all linked. Somaly was touched by the girls she would see and interview in brothels. But she would not be happy knowing the girls would stay there in miserable conditions, often close to sex slavery. So she would bring them to our own house.
Nieng and Adana, our two little daughters, were at home at that time. Setting up an organization was a great solution to help us create a center for the victims and raise our children in a safer environment. In this context, none of us had ever headed an organization, and communications were not part of the problem yet.
I wanted to draw a lot of attention to get funds from international institutions. Somaly is beautiful, sexy, charismatic and determined. Every NGO dreams of having its Somaly, and every media wants her on camera. We soon became very much high profile and we welcomed a lot of journalists. They all wanted to make something sexy, to draw attention and mark everyone’s mind.
For example, CNN and CNBC have been very pushy and wanted to show extraordinary stories. At that time, as an international director for AFESIP, I did not have the time to manage the media. But media was bringing visibility, which means funding in the NGO world. Why are celebrities today fulfilling the role of “ambassadors” for NGOs and international organizations and institutions?
It is only in the early 2000s that we put together a strategy to select journalists — because we were harassed by the media and could not control Somaly’s and AFESIP’s images, and even more importantly, protect the victims. Once, I had CNN and BBC at the same time in my office!
Journalists were furious when they had to sign a paper saying I would review everything before it was published. None of them did send me anything of course, and a lot of false stories came out, based on misunderstandings or the will to report about something extraordinary. Faces were shown, testimonies were wrong. The media just betrayed us for sensationalism and efficiency of information.
We started to have complaints from UNICEF and other child protection [agencies] accusing us of going too far and not protecting the children. From there, I refused a lot of reports and accepted only “big media,” to have a massive audience.
But to me, a real testimony is done by the police. Not by a journalist.
Out of all the “lies” Somaly is accused of, can you tell us today if victims of trafficking were still helped or if the whole operation is a fraud?
When I was at AFESIP, there were different types of victims. Some of them were victims of trafficking, others were referred to us by other NGOs or the police as “prevention cases” — meaning that they could be susceptible to trafficking. We host them all in our centers in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Kompong Cham.
A lot of them were coming from Vietnam. I cannot count how many girls were helped but I brought [some of] them back home to Vietnam myself. This is also the reason why we created a whole AFESIP network in the region. Our goal was to rescue the victims, host them in AFESIP centers in Cambodia and then bring them back home to host them in our AFESIP centers in their country of origin to ensure they could learn a job and reinsert themselves in the society.
But this all changed when I was forced to resign in 2004, for the Cambodian organization took full power over the regional offices that led them to split with AFESIP.
Why were you forced to leave the organization?
First, our marriage was falling apart. I felt I could not work with Somaly anymore. Then, the Cambodian organization that Somaly was directing became very aggressive with the international offices and wanted to take over the power. There was some kind of a “revolution” that led Cambodian and foreign staff to split. In 2004, the organization actually had money and could sustain itself. I understood quickly that Somaly wanted to have this money and would show me my way out. She did not need us anymore. I felt it was some sort of a “decolonization” war within AFESIP. We were not welcome anymore and could not work together.
There was also a raid led by Somaly and the police on the Chai Hour 2 hotel, a very high-profile hotel, known to be a place of prostitution but not necessarily of sex trafficking. This raid was very much reported in the media — and first done for a French TV [station] to be able to film it and make the headlines.
But Somaly and I, as well as our children, were in danger after this intervention.
It actually became a diplomatic incident between the US and Cambodia, because the US State Department protected us and was therefore fighting against some of the high-ranking politicians threatening us. It had to, since we would be awarded a year after with its anti-trafficking award. When the US Embassy learned about the raid, they called me straight away to let me know the US would protect us. I was, however, warned that I had to stop or we would be killed despite the embassy’s protection. It went too far. This is also part of the reasons why I resigned.
Why are you speaking out?
I kept silent so far because I do not really think this debate over Somaly’s lies is of interest. When you work in this world, you know fabricated stories are used by everyone to get funding. But I received death threats from Somaly and her entourage, telling me not to speak. I do it for my children, for the truth to be restored and to denounce the logic of a failing system praising “development.”