PHNOM PENH (Khmer Times) – Somaly Mam has seen her fame and fortune practically vanish.
Her fall from grace started with a damning Newsweek piece on May 20. After four months of silence, she was resurrected by Marie Claire magazine.
The phoenix rose from the ashes, right down to the detail of declaring she would retain the original name, The Somaly Mam Foundation.
That sparked a back and forth about the Cambodian government’s position. Finally, on Wednesday, Phay Siphan, spokesman of the Council of Ministers, flatly told the Khmer Times that Somaly Mam was free to open a non-government organization (NGO) in Cambodia.
“Media reports stating that the government bars Somaly Mam from setting up an NGO are false,” he said. “There is no valid reason for the government to ban her as she has not violated any laws.”
“Firstly, there is no NGO law through which we can bar her from establishing her NGO,”he said. “Secondly, there have been no reports launched officially against her for fraud or any other charges by her funders or supporters. Thirdly, only if there are charges filed against Somaly Mam can the Government investigate and decide to grant her an NGO status or not.”
How did a woman born in a remote farming village grow into an international anti-trafficking icon?
The evolution begins
Pierre Legros, a French aid worker, arrived in Phnom Penh in 1989. In 1991, he met Somaly, who was then working as a prostitute. They married in 1993, separated in 2004, and divorced in 2006. They have three children, two biological and one adopted.
Legros says he believes in helping those less fortunate when and where he can. In 1996, he set up “Acting for Women in Distressing Situations.” Known under its French acronym, AFESIP focuses on girls and women being trafficked to work in the sex industry.
Coming from an aid background, Legros became the brains, organizer, and director of AFESIP. He took risks and encouraged his wife to develop her personality, to exercise her freedom and to escape from the cultural constraints put on Cambodian women.
As UNICEF funding came through, Somaly stepped into the role of AFESIP’s public face. She gave anti-trafficking accounts and raised donations. Legros was content to be in her shadow, as he had no ambition to become a public person.
The success continues
As Somaly’s fame grew, she did television interviews in the United States and received international awards. Legros encouraged her to write a book, to tell her own story.
The Road of Lost Innocence was published in France in 2005, and then, in the United States, in 2007. It became a best-seller. Oddly, the French and English versions do not bear great resemblance to each other.
From prostitute to icon
Beautiful, photogenic, charismatic – with emotional, salacious stories that border on tear-jerking – Somaly was an icon package ripe for marketing. Once introduced to the A-list, Somaly’s reputation rocketed.
At her center in rural Cambodia, she hosted actresses Susan Saradon and Meg Ryan, and Nicholas Kristof, a Pulitizer Prize winning New York Times columnist.
She lunched with Hillary Clinton, sat in Oprah Winfrey’s interview chair, and won endorsements by Angelina Jolie and Queen Sophia of Spain.
Then came the awards: Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World, CNN “Hero” and Glamour’s “Woman of the Year.”
Cracks begin to show
The Newsweek story, reported by Simon Marks, blew open the scandal last May. But, questions of sainthood and chinks in the armor of the account started much earlier.
Spain’s Foreign Ministr had investigated possible financial fraud. Marks had written several articles, in Cambodia and overseas..
In 2012, Cat Barton wrote Somaly Man and the Dark Side of Charity. Last year, Lindsay Murdoch, of The Sydney Morning Herald , wrote Dark Truths or Fiction?
Rifts with Legros
In 2004, Legros was forced to resign as director of AFESIP. Legros apparently does not harbor animosity towards his former wife, even though she allows him limited access to visit their 12-year old son.
Since then, Legros came out publicly only twice to counter his ex-wife’s allegations. The first was when Somaly said police raided their shelter and killed eight girls. The second was when she claimed their adopted daughter had been gang-raped. The truth: she ran away to Battambang with her boyfriend.
Today, Legros lives and works quietly in Phnom Penh, avoiding drawing attention to himself.
So who is Somaly Mam?
In last May’s cover story, Newsweek essentially called Mam a fraud, claiming she fabricated accounts of sexual slavery, abuse and violence in her life, and those of others. The goal was to attract media attention and donations to her NGO.
Last month, Marie Claire counterattacked with a story featuring Mam’s first response. Marie Claire accused Newsweek of careless, unfair reporting that assassinated the character of a human rights champion.
Somaly Mam will continue to draw supporters and detractors. There is no clear cut verdict on Cambodia’s most famous – or notorious – contemporary woman.