23rd April 2012
Somaly Mam, possibly one the Kingdom’s most recognised faces and, in fact, famous throughout the world as the woman who overcame the tragedy of being trafficked herself to establish her own NGO to address the scourge.
However, she appears to have overreached herself when last week she made the surprise announcement that when police raided her Afesip centre in Phnom Penh in 2004, eight of the girls were subsequently murdered.
She made this claim in front of a UN General Assembly panel for activists, The Cambodia Daily reported last Friday, for the first time.
Back in 2004, around 83 women and girls had been bought to the Afesip centre in Tuol Kork district after a raid by the organisation and police on the Chai Hour 11 Hotel, where it was alleged that underage girls were providing sexual services in a massage parlour on the premises.
However, the following day, the centre itself was raided by government officials and members of the detained women’s families, and the women released.
Exactly what happened and why remain highly contested, with Somaly Mam claiming these officials colluded with the owners of the hotel, but a number of the women released insisting to reporters that they had no desire to be and, in fact, resented being “rescued”. It was also disputed that any of the women were underage, although reporters covering the event said they saw several who looked young.
No reports at the time, however, suggested any of the women who left the centre were missing, with the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights expressing surprise at Mam’s latest claim, and a report covering the period on human rights in Cambodia for the US State Department failing to mention it.
The ex-husband of Mam, Afesip’s international director at the time of the raids, also denied that any woman or girls were murdered either during the 2004 incident or in its aftermath, The Cambodia Daily reports today.
Moreover, he said that previous claims by his ex that their daughter had subsequently been kidnapped and gang-raped in revenge for her mother’s activism were also untrue. Pierre Legros insisted his daughter had simply run off with her boyfriend, but others who were privy to events say Mam received graphic images on her mobile phone that suggested otherwise.
However, it’s a classic “he says, she says” situation, although Legros’ desire to protect his daughter’s privacy is perfectly understandable.
However, the lack of evidence of Mam’s claims that some of the women from the 2004 raid had subsequently been murdered does seriously undermine her credibility. Observers had for some time felt that Mam had become preoccupied with her identity as an international celebrity for the cause and with her success in raising funds.
This was proving more of a problem that a solution to the problem of trafficking as sex trafficking has receded to be taken over by other forms of trafficking, such as the trafficking of workers.
Today it is the terrible tales of young Cambodian men tricked into slavery on foreign fishing trawlers and young women beaten and starved working as maids in Malaysia that are the big stories.
Trafficking of sex workers, especially teenagers, may still exist on the margins but is much less of an issue than in the past, at least here in Cambodia, according to those in the industry.
In fact this latest story of Samaly Mam could be salutary. It demonstrates the very real risks that those who have made an industry out of characterising trafficking as all about sex – in order raising funds for their organisations – can so easily become trapped in their own web when they are such strong financial incentives to perpetuate what is, in effect, a deceit.
Update. 27 October 2012
This well-researched story from The Cambodia Daily tends to reinforce the above story.