Human Face

Cambodian CNN hero exposed as fraud

It is sad to know that Somaly Mam, the celebrated Cambodian CNN hero and renowned advocate against sex trafficking and slavery of women and children, has been exposed as a fraud. Newsweek’s cover story (5/21/14), “Somaly Mam: The Holy Saint (and Sinner) of Sex Trafficking” by Simon Marks, details why.

Marks writes: “Mam is one of the world’s most compelling activists, brave and beautiful, and her list of supporters is long and formidable. Former U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton and actresses Meg Ryan, Susan Sarandon and Shay Mitchell, as well as New York Times Pulitzer-prize-winning columnist Nicholas Kristof, have all toured AFESIP centers in Cambodia. Queen Sofia of Spain has for years promoted Mam’s cause and even visited her in the hospital last year when she fell ill. Mark Zuckerberg’s former PR guru, Brandee Barker … is a board member of the Somaly Mam Foundation and Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg is an advisory member.”


(AFESIP stands for Agir Pour Les Femmes en Sitaution Precaire which roughly translates as “helping women in danger.”)

“Mam has raised millions with a hectic schedule of meetings all over the globe with the good, the great and the super-rich—from the U.N.’s Ban Ki-Moon to the pope. One day she will be speaking at the White House, and the next day she’ll be enthralling schoolchildren in a remote center in Cambodia.”


What happened? And what has Newsweek’s Marks discovered?

Mam, described by Marks as “compelling,” turned out to have lied about her tear-jerking experience as a child sex slave, an experience that never happened; about persons (particularly “Grandfather”) who she said had abused her but who never existed; about her best-selling book “The Road of Lost Innocence” that was more fiction than autobiographical fact. Also about her wards who had been coached to tell stories of abuse that were not true. All in order to gain the world’s sympathy and generosity. Incidentally, fame and power come with the package.

In other words, Mam’s believers and supporters have been had. Shortly after the exposé, Mam resigned from the Somaly Mam Foundation. Last May 31, CNN World wrote:

“In the wake of [Newsweek’s] revelations, Mam resigned this week from her foundation, which had hired a law firm to independently investigate Mam’s background when questions arose. The law firm’s findings weren’t disclosed by the foundation.

“Mam, whose book says she was born around 1970 or 1971, couldn’t be reached for comment, but the foundation still bearing her name issued a statement this week.”

CNN World quoted foundation executive director Gina Reiss-Wilchins as saying: “As a result of [the law firm’s] efforts, we have accepted Somaly’s resignation effective immediately. Despite the foundation’s heartfelt disappointment, we remain grateful to Somaly’s work over the past two decades and for helping to build a foundation that has served thousands of women and girls. The foundation’s commitment to eradicating the trafficking and sexual exploitation of women and girls in Southeast Asia remains steadfast, and we ask that you continue to stand with us in the face of these challenging times.”

Another disheartening event involving a nongovernment organization—a globally known one at that—which had drawn much financial support and appreciation. A sad day for women advocates who uphold truth, gender equality and eradication of violence against women and girls. Sad, because a woman has hurt her own cause and advocacy.


I’ve seen Mam’s picture a number of times in magazines. Aside from being a CNN hero, she was also hailed as one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in 2009. I couldn’t help wondering if she had ever been nominated for the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Awards (“Asia’s Nobel”), which put a high premium on “greatness of spirit” and not on tangible achievements alone.

The world needs heroes and idols to emulate. The media, CNN and Time in particular, have been searching and bringing to the world’s attention little-known heroic efforts in difficult situations, daring trail-blazers in harsh landscapes, community innovators in forgotten environments. But sometimes some little-known facts evade media scrutiny. Bleeding-heart types can easily fall for heartrending stories, and “poverty porn” images that tug at the purse strings.

This is not to say that we should be walking cynics and skeptics. But there are stories sometimes that are just too bad to be true. A little digging can uncover some fabrications and embellishments that don’t fit together. It is one thing to just go along and listen to a tale and write about it, quote-unquote, it’s another to be so taken up and rouse the neighborhood on the victim’s behalf.

I remember a case of a missing person in the 1980s who was thought to have been abducted by military elements. His pregnant wife and her friends, with the help of the media, went all out to demand the missing person’s return. It turned out later that the guy was abducted by his own comrades in the communist underground, having been suspected as a “deep-penetration agent,” a victim of a bloody purge. But there was no intent to mislead while the search was on. People were just searching in the wrong place.

Mam’s deliberate intent to make people—her French husband included—believe her life story has been exposed. Her book was published when her work among the hapless sex-trafficked Cambodians had already gained recognition. Why the need to fabricate? After gaining the world’s sympathy and heaps of donations, Mam’s motive must have gone past money. Fame? Power?

In a statement, Mam said: “I wrote my book to shed light on the lives of so many thousands of other women who have shared my fate. They have no voice, so I let my voice stand for theirs.”

Oh no, you can’t, if your story is not true.

Send feedback to [email protected] or www.ceresdoyo.com

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TAGS: “Somaly Mam: The Holy Saint (and Sinner) of Sex Trafficking”, Cambodia, CNN Hero, fraud, Sex Trafficking, Sexual Exploitation, Simon Marks, slavery, Trafficking
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