Disgraced Cambodian anti-sex slavery activist Somaly Mam staging a comeback

Ms Somaly Mam, the high-profile anti-sex slavery activist whose dramatic life story was reported to be fabricated, is now trying to claw back some credibility and return to working for sex trafficking victims.

In an exclusive interview with The Straits Times, the first Asian media she spoke to after an explosive Newsweek magazine report in May suggested that she had lied about her past, the Cambodian said: "I don't care about my reputation.

" I will never give up, I will do everything for my girls." She also said she stands by her life story.

"I am not perfect," Ms Mam, who wowed Hollywood, the White House and Manhattan with her story and work, told The Straits Times over the phone on Monday.

However, she insisted: "I stand by my story. Forever, until the day I die."

The Newsweek cover story was written by journalist Simon Marks, who had been investigating Ms Mam for his previous employer, The Cambodia Daily. During his investigations, he found significant details of her life had been fabricated, the report said.

They included an account of how Ms Somana, one of the women whom Ms Mam had allegedly rescued from sex trafficking, had suffered at the hands of a brothel owner.

But Ms Somana's medical records which Newsweek investigated suggested that she was blind in one eye not from an injury inflicted by a brothel owner as claimed, but from surgery for a tumour, the magazine report said.

Soon after the Newsweek report, The Holy Saint (and Sinner) of Sex Trafficking, appeared, Ms Mam was forced to step down from the United States-based Somaly Mam Foundation.

Shocked by the revelations, donors dropped her like a hot brick. Funds dried up, leaving her Cambodian non-governmental organisation Afesip on the verge of closing down and the future of 170 rescued young women under its care in jeopardy, she said.

Afesip's outreach work, like visiting brothels and distributing condoms and holding health clinics, also ground to a halt, she claimed.

For weeks, Ms Mam, who is in her 40s, disappeared from the media, until she spoke to a journalist from Marie Claire magazine last month.

It quoted Ms Mam as saying she had not lied about her own story. When reporter Abigail Pesta retraced Newsweek's steps to check Ms Mam's narrative, she found that three people who had spoken to Newsweek had changed their stories, the Marie Claire report said.

Newsweek has acknowledged one editing error in its report, in which it changed the sex of a Khmer interviewee. But the magazine stood by its story.

Mr Marks told The Straits Times that he had no comments on Ms Mam's claims that she did not lie or on the Marie Claire story.

Ms Mam blamed cultural factors for some inconsistent narratives. "In Cambodia, a normal girl cannot stand up and say 'I was a prostitute'," she said.

But she sidestepped a question about her daughter, whom Ms Mam had claimed was kidnapped and raped in 2006 when she was 14, in retaliation for Ms Mam's work.

The Newsweek report said the daughter had actually run away with her boyfriend, but Ms Mam made up the story about her abduction.

When asked what the real story was, Ms Mam told The Straits Times: "I will not talk about her. I love my girl. I am her mother."

She also said that Mr Marks had never met her and had no right to judge her. But the Newsweek article claimed that multiple requests to meet her drew no response.

On whether she will sue Newsweek, Ms Mam said of the sex trafficking victims under her and Afesip's care: "My priority is the girls... (They are) my work right now."

Controversies are not new to Ms Mam.

In her best-selling 2005 autobiography The Road Of Lost Innocence, she claims to have been sold into prostitution as a teenager, before she escaped and married a French aid worker and lived in France.

She later returned to Cambodia to help rescue young women from prostitution.

In 2012, she had to apologise for misleading the United Nations in a complaint accusing the Cambodian military of killing eight rescued girls after it raided her shelter. She could not produce any evidence to support the claim.

That same year, The Cambodia Daily exposed as untrue the stories of a sex trafficking victim apparently rescued by Afesip.

Whatever the truth, Ms Mam is back to doing what she is used to - fighting to make her place in the world.

Her strategy seems to be to shift the focus from her own story to her current work.

"I just want to (visit) the brothels every single day, just to be with (the girls). It's not to make them leave the brothel. I want them to feel that I am here. It's not about myself," she said of the women she visits as part of Afesip's work.

The Marie Claire report appeared to signal the beginning of a return by Ms Mam.

Last month, she met some of her faithful backers in the US. Among them was actress Susan Sarandon, who was quoted as saying: "It was crazy the way they threw her under the bus."

Ms Mam says her supporters in the US, which include volunteers from her eponymous foundation, are helping her to start another organisation.

The same week the Marie Claire report appeared, a high-profile Fifth Avenue public relations firm, which is representing her pro bono, e-mailed journalists to say the Newsweek report was full of "inconsistencies, innuendos and inaccuracies".

"Somaly Mam wants her dignity and reputation restored... It is her hope that having set the record straight, she can return to the work of rescuing and rehabilitating victims of human trafficking and to helping to halt sexual slavery in all its forms," the e-mail said.

nirmal@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Oct 8, 2014.
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