Somaly Mam Overreaches Herself


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.

Category: Uncategorized 8 comments »

8 Responses to “Somaly Mam Overreaches Herself”

  1. Cheryl Overs

    I was in Phnom Penh working with sex workers when this happenned. Everyone knew then that these women had been captured and held illegally. But the myth goes on and Somali Mom has proven you can make whatever outrageous claims she wants and they will never be checked. Thats how myths work can say what she likes. Her audience is not in Cambodia it is in the US. Even H Clinton and Obama have praised her, presumably without the usual scrutiny that prevents them from endoresing people who are later exposed as criminals.

  2. Ben Jenkins

    I have visited the three AFESIP shelters on many occasions and can say categorically that NO girls are kept against their will. They have nothing but gratitude and love for Somaly and her team. It is very dangerous that people (who obviously have dubious motives) are free to lie about the work of a wonderful organisation. Shame on you. I hope you never have to suffer some of the horrific experiences of some of the women and girls I met,

  3. Joe Cordaro

    When I see articles attacking Somaly Mam, my first impression is that of a disgruntled brothel owner that feels cheated, an insincere volunteer that feels that they didn’t receive due recognition OR a client that doesn’t want his options reduced. The idea that Somaly is up to sinister activity is just plain and simple skullduggery. No, on second thought–the criticism is not smart enough to qualify as skullduggery–it’s just simple, unsophisticated and shameful lies. Also, It is very easy to get access to their financial reports–they put them out regularly. Perhaps now we can all debate the best flavor bubble gum or how Elvis didn’t really sing his songs—good lord!

  4. admin

    Joe, I’m surprised a man of science would resort to an ad hominem attack rather than present a reasoned rebuttal as well as defence of your heroine.

  5. Joe Cordaro

    Greetings, I agree so I will give my opinion.

    In your last paragraph (your conclusion actually) you state that the story of Somaly Mam could be salutary because (and your actual conclusion is) it serves as an example of someone who has become trapped in a web of deceit due to their strong financial incentives. Moreover, you claim that she has made an industry out of characterizing trafficking as all about sex (and it is here, in your conclusion, that you introduce a motive by the phrase “In order to raise funds for their organization” Question: where have you (in the article above which serves as the source of your conclusion) given explicit proof that Somaly has (and the implication, intended or not, is that it is sinister) a motive? OR that she holds the belief that trafficking is all about sex? Remember, you should not introduce new material in the conclusion section of your argument; a conclusion must be supported by what came before it.

    Okay now, let’s look at the phrase “it demonstrates that” which appears in your very last paragraph. To demonstrate is to make clear or show the truth of- OR- the practical usage of, such as: “He demonstrated the use of the water pump”. The “evidence” presented in the article above is anecdotal at best and as such (and by definition) cannot (and has not) strictly demonstrate (d) anything at all. A better way to end it would have been “The above considerations may raise questions regarding the possible risks….etc”

    Also “Made an industry” is an assertion that is not supported by the preceding article. By definition industry is one of several things 1. Commercial production and sale of goods, 2. A specific branch of manufacture and trade, 3. The sector of an economy made up of manufacturing enterprises, 4. Industrial management, 5. Energetic devotion to a task or an endeavor; diligence, 6. Ongoing work or study associated with a specified subject or figure: the Civil War industry; the Hemingway industry,
    7. Archaeology:
    a. A collection of artifacts or tools made from a specified material: a Mesolithic bone industry.
    b. A standardized tradition of toolmaking associated with a specified tool or culture: a stone hand-ax industry; the Acheulian industry.

    So—which of these definitions of industry is the story above alluding to? Better yet, where in your article have you given strong evidence that Somaly is in it for profit? After all by using the word “Industry” what you are really saying is profit—alluding to a personal surplus after all the operating costs are accounted for. Question: where have you presented evidence for this in the article?

    So, the best we can do is look at likelihood. What are the odds that Somaly has pulled the wool over the eyes of so many people around the world? Journalist, businessmen and women, state officials including Hillary Clinton, Hollywood actors and actresses as well as tens of thousands of everyday people—smart people who are very conscious of their funds? OR—would you also assert that they must all be in on it too—a massive collusion to ensure that Somaly has all the money she needs under the guise of a humanitarian? Moreover, such behavior would violate the organizations 501 C3 status—subjecting them to taxes, none of this sounds very likely—at all.

    In essence, what you have presented is simply an opinion piece coupled with anecdotal evidence. I have things in my own life that I don’t recall accurately and my version differs from friends of mine. I think that it is infinitely more likely that the people in the sex trafficking industry (and here industry is correct) who lose money and who are embarrassed by getting caught and/or shut down have a bone to pick with Somaly (or who just have a personal problem with her and pose as concerned ex-employees who then proceed to troll the opinion pages and make false claims)—yes, it is much more likely that an effort would be made on several fronts to fight her AND such efforts would include a (largely local) smear campaign in the attempt to discredit her. Well, you asked for my opinion and that is it. My goal was not to prove the contradiction but simply shed doubt on your implications (intended or not) with respect to Somaly and her work.


  6. Joe Cordaro

    Now (since you asked me to be reasoned and thourough I want to make sure I do so), I will address the supposed claim that the Army killed the girls–well–I read the quote here and she never said that. Here is my response to that:

    If one reads the quote it does not say that the army killed the girls. It says that the army “Go to the center and take the girls out and eight of them have been killed”

    The first thin that strikes me is a certain legerdemain in the popular interpretation. This quote could very easily be interpreted as (since the girls were removed from the center (in this case by the army) the result is that eight of them have been killed) Nothing in her statement implies that the army did the killing–the first impression I get (immediately when I read the quote) is that (to repeat myself) the removal of the girls from the center ultimately resulted in their deaths. It is a tricky business to attempt to argue , or interpret, intent. Honestly, I do not see any deception in the quote–again–we can argue intent all day long but the wording gives it away–she never said that the army killed the girls. Saying she lied (based on the quote) is not defensible.

    Her ex, Mr Legros is quoted as saying the following “No one has been killed in that story” then later he is quoted as saying “I never heard anyone has been killed” so–which is it? here we have two quotes by Mr Legros–one of certainty followed by one of uncertainty–he can’t have it both ways. Either no one was killed OR he has not heard of anyone being killed–two radically different accounts. The first asserts a position with eye witness authority and the second makes the assumption that basically says “What I didn’t hear about didn’t happen”

    This is why none of these propositions would ever hold up in a court of law. We should think clearly before asserting truth based on interpretation.

  7. julieG

    I am a sex-worker. I fear rescue (often arrest or placement in a facility against my will) I like my job, it provides me with a flexible schedule and a lot of money. I like my clients. STOP RESCUING US FROM JOBS WE WANT!!!!

  8. Phil Istine

    Somaly mam is a fucking liar.

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