Don't let Somaly Mam sully others' good work

Don't let Somaly Mam sully others' good work
Ms Mam with Cambodian children at a vocational training centre in Phnom Penh in 2008. Her fans have now learnt she had fabricated much of the story used to raise millions of dollars over a decade or so.

Hundreds of journalists have met Ms Somaly Mam, a Cambodian who has waged an unceasing campaign against the trafficking of young girls for commercial sex. I got to know her back in October 2011.

Like the others, I came away impressed by the iconic crusader and her compelling story - that she herself had been sexually abused, trafficked and traumatised, that she escaped her plight, and that she now rescues others and pursues sex traffickers like some vengeful Kali-like goddess.

I was in good company. Pulitzer Prize-winning Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times has been actively promoting her work since at least 2008, and helping to turn her into an international celebrity. After all, her 2005 autobiography, The Road Of Lost Innocence, had all the makings of a true-life Hollywood movie.

In it, Ms Mam - now in her mid-40s - claims she was taken from her village by a man she called "grandfather". He turned her into a slave, she wrote, and eventually sold her as a virgin to a Chinese businessman, who then forced her to marry a violent soldier when she was 14.

Later in the book, she tells of being sold to a brothel in Phnom Penh, where she worked for 10 years.

In 2009, Ms Mam was one of Time magazine's "most influential people". In 2006, Glamour magazine made her Woman of the Year, and in 2007, the US State Department named her a Hero of Anti-Trafficking.

Charismatic and disarmingly blunt, she took to American TV studios like the proverbial duck to water. Almost everyone was bowled over. Even a journalist of Mr Kristof's stature was flying her flag. He had spent so much time with her and chronicled her work, so one would assume that he had done the due diligence, right?

Clearly, wrong.

Last week, journalists and admirers of Ms Mam learnt she had fabricated or embellished much of the life story that had been used to raise millions of dollars over a decade or so.

What hits hardest is that many of us were unwittingly complicit in helping her sell it. The signs were there.

The tale she told of her daughter having been kidnapped and raped by traffickers retaliating against her sounded outlandish. That should have raised red flags.

Of the mainstream media, the Cambodia Daily was among the sceptics. And Phnom Penh-based British journalist Simon Marks, 28, had been raising questions about Ms Mam's integrity since 2012, when she had to apologise to the United Nations for falsely claiming that the Cambodian army had shot dead rescued girls.

Mr Marks actually visited Ms Mam's village, where he found that none of the elders knew anything about her story of having been sold and trafficked.

In a 2009 column, Mr Kristof wrote of another girl, Ms Long Pros, who had been kidnapped and trafficked to a brothel when she was 13.

In it, he said she had been tortured there, became pregnant twice, was subjected to crude abortions and eventually lost an eye when the brothel owner beat her with a piece of metal for taking a break from work. She was rescued by a woman working for Ms Mam. Or so the story went.

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