After Long Silence, Somaly Mam Hits Back

Four months after a Newsweek article reported that Somaly Mam falsified her backstory as a sex slave, prompting her exit from the NGO named after her, the anti-trafficking activist publicly defended herself for the first time Wednesday in an article published on the same day that a public relations offensive was launched on her behalf.

Ms. Mam—who resigned from the Somaly Mam Foundation (SMF) as controversy around her story peaked after the article came out in May—told the U.S. edition of Marie Claire magazine in an article published Wednesday that she has “nothing to hide.”

Newsweek magazine reported inconsistencies in Ms. Mam’s autobiography, “The Road of Lost Innocence,” while prior reports by the article’s author, Simon Marks, for The Cambodia Daily revealed that she coached supposedly trafficked young women to lie about their life stories to drum up support for her anti-trafficking organizations.

The Marie Claire article, which sets out Ms. Mam’s side of the story, lists inaccuracies in the Newsweek exposé and also provides an explanation for why she parted ways with SMF, which she co-founded in 2007 as a way to raise funds for her own anti-sex trafficking organization, Afesip, and other groups with similar missions.

Within hours of the Marie Claire article hitting the Web, Scott Gorenstein, vice president of public relations firm Jonathan Marder + Company, sent an email to journalists claiming the Newsweek story was full of “inconsistencies, innuendos and inaccuracies.”

“[Mr. Marks’] material has effectively destroyed the reputation, and decades of work, by a woman whom even he acknowledges had done enormous good,” the email continues.

In the email, Mr. Gorenstein also offers interviews with Ms. Mam, who is “now willing to speak for the first time” in the hope that she can restore her reputation.

Contacted by telephone Wednesday evening, Mr. Gorenstein said Ms. Mam was “en route to New York at the moment” and the company would be scheduling interviews with journalists starting September 22.

Asked who was paying for the New York-based firm’s services, Mr. Gorenstein, who also represents American actress and singer Liza Minnelli, said: “I’m not going to get into that.”

A website has also been set up for the “New Somaly Mam Fund,” purporting to have been established by friends of Ms. Mam “who want her strong and effective voice to continue to be heard in the anti-human trafficking movement and her leadership to be undiminished.”

Along with newly created Twitter and Facebook pages, the website, which also references the Marie Claire article, solicits donations for Afesip, which lost almost all of its funding when SMF abruptly cut ties with the organization in June.

The article in the U.S. edition of Marie Claire comes less than two weeks after Marie Claire’s Australian edition published an article about the scandal, written by Mr. Marks, titled “The Former Sex Slave Who Fooled The World.”

In her interview with the U.S. edition, Ms. Mam said the board of directors at SMF, who hired law firm Goodwin Procter to investigate the mounting allegations against her, wanted her to sign a letter saying she had never been forced into prostitution and had “created and exaggerated” stories about her life—a request she refused.

“I have not lied,” she told the magazine. “They wanted me to say sorry. I’m not sorry for my life.”

Marie Claire points out several inaccuracies in the Newsweek article, including that the story named one source, Pen Chhun Heng, as a woman when he is, in fact, a man. Mr. Chhun Heng was quoted in the original article as saying that Ms. Mam was not adopted, but told Marie Claire otherwise. Contacted Wednesday, Mr. Chhun Heng said he was unsure.

The Marie Claire article also addresses Ms. Mam’s school record. While Newsweek claimed that she obtained a high school diploma, the school’s former director, Thou Soy, told Marie Claire that she only went as far as secondary school—or up to Grade 7—before disappearing. Mr. Soy now works for Afesip as a security guard.

Newsweek stands by its story.

And questions over Ms. Mam’s personal history—which she acknowledged in the interview was muddled and full of discrepancies —remain.

Crucially, Ms. Mam’s alleged coaching of Meas Ratha, who was not named or interviewed by Marie Claire but previously told The Cambodia Daily she was selected and coached by Ms. Mam to appear on television to recount a fictitious story of sexual slavery as a teenage girl, has not been negated.

The article disputes other reports that previously appeared in this newspaper, including an investigation into Long Pros, who told journalists, including Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times, that her eye had been mutilated by a brothel owner after she refused to have sex with customers as a trafficked teen. In fact, Long Pros had a non-malignant tumor removed from her eye as a child, according to medical records and interviews with her parents.

Ms. Mam’s story of rising from a sex slave to savior of fellow victims had captivated an international audience that included celebrities, entrepreneurs and politicians, and donations rolled in.

SMF increased its spending from $348,283 to $3.53 million between 2008 and 2011, according to financial reports filed with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service. In 2011, Ms. Mam earned $125,642 in her position as president of the organization.

The fairy tale began falling apart in April 2012, when she lied to a U.N. panel, saying the Cambodian military killed eight girls after a raid on Afesip’s center in Phnom Penh in 2004. Over the next two years, inconsistencies in her stories continued to emerge.

Ms. Mam told Marie Claire that at the U.N. meeting she “did not make false claims, but rather, spoke unclearly as English is not her first language.”

In the article, Ms. Mam explained away contradictions in her own backstory by putting it down to years of enslavement.

“I was a domestic slave, then I was in a brothel,” she said. “How do you count? So I was in the brothel two years, 20 years, 20 days?”

Attempts to contact Ms. Mam directly through her personal Facebook pages were unsuccessful. Directors of Afesip and SMF could not be reached.

(Additional reporting by Kuch Naren and Khy Sovuthy)

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