The Road of Lost Innocence (link to Amazon here) is “a riveting and beautiful memoir of tragedy and hope,” says the publisher’s blurb. And, of course, a true story.
Except all the evidence suggests it’s not.
“Road” was published as the life-story of Cambodian anti-trafficking campaigner Somaly Mam. Kirkus Review gives this summary:
“Born in 1970 or 1971 and torn from her ethnic Phnong family during Cambodia’s genocidal civil war, Mam suffered as a child in a Khmer village whose people saw her as “fatherless, black, and ugly,” possibly even a cannibal. Her pederast grandfather sold her virginity to a Chinese merchant to whom he owed money, a prize in a culture where raping a virgin was believed to cure AIDS. He then sold her to a soldier who “beat me often, sometimes with the butt of his rifle on my back and sometimes with his hands.” From there it was a short path to what Mam calls “ordinary prostitution,” working for a madam who was quick to hit and slow to feed. In time, after a series of indignities that she recounts in painful detail, Mam extricated herself to live with a French humanitarian-aid worker.”
So there you have it: oppressed minority, pederast grandfather, sold for her virginity, physically and sexually abused, underage prostitute.
The book goes on to tell how she overcame this horrific history to become a leading fighter in the anti-child sex trafficking fight, first in her native Cambodia, and later, following a documentary aired on French television, the world.
And little if any of it is true.
The real story begins with that 1998 French documentary. Prior to that, Somaly was just the head of one of many tiny anti-trafficking organisations in Cambodia. The documentary featured a dramatic interview with a 14 year old called Ratha, rescued from a brothel by Somaly’s NGO, AFESIP. Six months later Somaly was on stage at Spain’s Campoamor Theater alongside Emma Bonino, a former European Commissioner for humanitarian aid, and Olayinka Koso-Thomas, a Nigerian-born doctor who had campaigned for decades against the circumcision of women, receiving the prestigious Prince of Asturias Award for International Cooperation. Somaly was telegenic, she spoke French, and she had a host of harrowing tales.
By 2008, the date this book was published, Somaly Mam was a jet-setting ambassador for the global campaign against the trafficking of children and women, president of her own Somaly Mam Foundation which raises millions each year, rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous. In 2009, she was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people.
Then around 2012 the Cambodia Daily started doing some investigative reporting, and the wheels started to fall off for Somaly Mam. They fell slowly, but they fell surely. That heart-wrenching interview on French television with Ratha? “The video that you see, everything that I put in is not my story,” Ratha told the Daily. Mam’s NGO, she said, had provided an education for her, and she was grateful, but that she could no longer continue a lie that had followed her for half her life. “Somaly said that…if I want to help another woman I have to do [the interview] very well.” In other words, the interview was faked by Somaly.
The Cambodia Daily also discovered that one of the Somaly Mam Foundation’s most highly-publicized sex trafficking victims had fabricated her harrowing story of gruesome mutilation at the hands of a brothel owner. In numerous interviews and in a prime-time television documentary, Long Pros said that as a young girl she was held as a sex slave at a brothel in Phnom Penh where she had her eye gouged out with a knife for refusing to have sex with customers. However, medical records and interviews with Ms. Pros’ parents and her eye surgeon showed she had her eye removed in a hospital because of a tumor that developed in her childhood. Ms. Pros’ parents said she was sent directly from their home to Ms. Mam’s organization in Phnom Penh simply to get an education and she had never spent any time in a brothel.
In 2013 Somaly Mam finally admitted that claims she had made in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly in New York, in which she said that eight girls she rescued from the sex industry had been killed by the Cambodian army after they raided her organization’s shelter, were false, as were long-standing and highly publicized claims that her 14 years old daughter was kidnapped by human traffickers in 2006. (Somaly had claimed that the traffickers had videotaped her daughter being gang-raped in retaliation for her work with victims of the sex trade; police said they were baffled by the claims, while Ms. Mam’s former partner said the story was a publicity stunt to raise funds for her organization).
All of this related to stories told by Somaly Mam in relation to her work post-1998; now it seems that the entire story of her life before then, the story which begins Road of Lost Innocence, is equally unreliable. ( Newsweek, 21 May, 2014, “Somaly Mam: The Holy Saint And Sinner Of Sex Trafficking,” Simon Marks).
Newsweek’s interviews with Somaly’s childhood acquaintances, former teachers, and local officials in Thloc Chhroy, the village where she grew up, contradict important, lurid details in the autobiography. Many of the villagers report they never met or even saw Mam’s cruel “pederastic grandfather,” nor the rich Chinese merchant who allegedly raped her, nor the violent soldier she says she was forced to marry.
Orn Hok, a former commune (village district) chief, remembers the day she arrived in the village, noting, “Somaly came here with her parents. She is a daughter of Mam Khon and Pen Navy.”
Pen Chhun Heng, now in her 70s, says she is a cousin of Mam’s mother and rejects the notion that Mam was adopted or that she was raised (or kept) by “Grandfather.”
Sam Nareth, a childhood friend of Mam’s, says Mam first attended school in the village in 1981 and remained there until she got her high school diploma. “She finished secondary school in 1987, and Somaly and I went to sit the teachers exam in Kompong Cham together.”
Thou Soy, director of Khchao High School in Thloc Chhroy, distinctly remembers Mam attending classes between 1981 and 1987, as does the current commune chief, Thorng Ruon, and his two predecessors. Mam was well-known and popular in their small village, “a happy, pretty girl with pigtails.”
What led Somaly Mam to create such a complicated web of falsehoods? (As Marks points out, the stories have become so complicated that she has trouble keeping the details straight). Possibly she’s what the French call a fabuliste, a compulsive maker-up of alternative realities. This is not the same thing as a deliberate liar or confidence trickster – the fabuliste has no more control over the stories than a kleptomaniac has over shoplifting. When the she was so abruptly rocketed into the international jet-set, it must have seemed that the unreal was real after all.
There also seems to be an element of something darker in her makeup, though equally pathological. On the international stage Somaly is charming, but in private, according to Marks’ investigations, she’s tyrannical and self-centred, and AFESIP operates in an atmosphere not of dedication but of fear. “She used to talk to me (reports an ex-employee) about wanting to put things in people’s food and how easy it would be to poison someone.”
Let’s return to the question Marks raises: even if Somaly Mam lies about practically everything, does it matter? After all, the sex industry is evil, sex trafficking (especially of children) is especially evil, and if Mam raises consciousness and money in the West, is this an adequate excuse?
The core problem is that Somaly Mam is a public figure, the public face of the anti-trafficking campaign in Cambodia. And she’s poisoning the well. In her highly emotional speeches and presentations she claims there “at least” 40,000 trafficked women in Cambodia, many of them under-age. This seems highly unlikely. A well-conducted 2008 study by a professor of statistics from the University of Miami found there were barely a thousand trafficked women, and only 127 children (defined as aged under age 18); only eleven of these were aged 15 or less. In short, Somaly Mam has created a grave misapprehension in the West over trafficking in Cambodia.
Which brings us to the question of cash. If the anti-trafficking organisations are spending millions on the cause, yet there are still 40,000-plus trafficked women and children in the brothels of Cambodia, then the money hasn’t been very well spent. If, on the other hand, there are only a thousand trafficked women and just over a hundred children, what’s being done with the money? (Just one million dollars, divided equally between a thousand women and children, would give each of them a thousand dollars, which is a small fortune in Cambodia). Where has the money gone?
Marks spent two years investigating this story, and for most of that time, Somaly, AFESIP and the foundation stonewalled. In April, after repeated requests from Newsweek for an interview with Somaly Mam, Gina Reiss-Wilchins, the foundation’s executive director, said in a statement on the foundation’s website: “Following an internal review, the Foundation has recently launched an independent, third-party investigation to further examine these claims. Somaly Mam is in full support of this review. We can only hope that this does not deter other survivors from sharing their experiences, because it is their courageous voices that bring promise of a world free from trafficking.” The foundation has retained the law firm Goodwin Procter, (which also declined to speak to Newsweek), to carry out the investigation. A further and much briefer statement was issued in May following the appearance of the Newsweek article.