Accessibility links

Cambodian Advocate Quits Over Alleged Fabrications

  • Robert ​Carmichael

FILE - Author and human rights advocate Somaly Mam attends the Somaly Mam Foundation Gala in New York, Oct. 23, 2013.

FILE - Author and human rights advocate Somaly Mam attends the Somaly Mam Foundation Gala in New York, Oct. 23, 2013.

One of Cambodia’s most prominent advocacy figures has resigned following media reports that she fabricated her own life story and the stories of several other women who claimed to be sex trafficking victims. Somaly Mam, who founded the anti-sex trafficking foundation that bears her name, resigned this week following an internal investigation.

Somaly Mam has for years been a leading figure internationally in efforts to combat sex trafficking. In 2009, the U.S.-based news publication Time magazine named her one of the world’s 100 most influential people. Three years earlier, the cable news channel CNN listed her as one of its heroes.

Her eponymous non-profit, the Somaly Mam Foundation, is based in New York, and raises money for her Cambodia-based organization AFESIP. That, in turn, operates three centers for victims of sex trafficking.

The Somaly Mam Foundation has long been a favorite with American celebrities. Among its trustees are Hollywood actress Susan Sarandon and Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg.

Lingering doubts

But over the past two years, a series of media reports raised doubts about the stories told by some of the women her foundation put forward as sex trafficking victims. More recently, questions were asked about some of the truths behind Somaly Mam’s own well-publicized story as a victim of sex trafficking.

The reports initially ran in 2012 and 2013 in the Cambodia Daily, an English-language newspaper. But it was not until earlier this year that the Somaly Mam Foundation appointed a law firm to examine the claims.

Earlier this month, the U.S.-based magazine Newsweek ran a cover story by former Cambodia Daily editor Simon Marks that presented many of the same allegations to a much wider audience.

On Wednesday in New York, the foundation’s executive director, Gina Reiss-Wilchins announced that, as a consequence of the investigation’s findings, Somaly Mam had resigned.

Reiss-Wilchins also announced that Long Pros - whose story as a child sex slave who had survived extraordinary brutality appeared in The New York Times - would no longer have any affiliation with the foundation.

No comment

Somaly Mam has not commented publicly on the allegations or on her resignation. In an email, Alison Nakamura, the foundation’s senior director of communications, told VOA that the organization would not say anything more at this time. The foundation has not released the results of its investigation.

Yet the fallout from the investigation could have wider implications than Somaly Mam and her two non-governmental organizations.

Sébastien Marot is the founder of Friends-International, a highly regarded organization that works in Cambodia and abroad with thousands of street children. He says his concern is that today’s news could hurt other organizations working in the anti-trafficking sector.

“Well my biggest worry is - as a consequence from all this - is that it will give and could give a really bad image of the work done in Cambodia and the work done in the field of trafficking and women at risk," Marot said. "And it would be very, very damaging - it could become very damaging - to NGOs in Cambodia and elsewhere and really undermine the good work carried out by also many of these organizations.”

The Somaly Mam Foundation was established in 2007 to combat the trafficking and sexual exploitation of women and girls in Southeast Asia and has, since then, raised the profile of the issue.

But over the years, some of the claims made by Somaly Mam raised eyebrows, as did the organization’s use of alleged victims of sex trafficking to raise awareness and funds. Its decision to allow New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristoff to live-tweet a brothel raid in Cambodia in 2011 was also sharply criticized.