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US was on to Somaly Mam

Somaly Mam and Queen Sofia
Cambodian activist Somaly Mam (left) walks with Queen Sofia (right) of Spain at the Afesip Tom Dy Rehabilitation and Vocational Training Center in Phnom Penh in 2008. AFP

US was on to Somaly Mam

The US government knew about the now-infamous deceptions and malpractice within organisations run by Somaly Mam for years prior to the media exposés that sent shockwaves through the anti-trafficking world last year.

Even so, Washington continued to see her as a “positive force in the anti-trafficking effort”, despite evidence that medical care at her shelters was not available and that her local NGO, Afesip, had “mismanaged” funds, confidential US State Department cables obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request show.

A cable titled Somaly Mam Under Microscope sent to the State Department from the embassy in Phnom Penh on May 8, 2012, shows that the embassy suspected as early as 2006 that a key claim repeated by Mam over the years – that her daughter was abducted in 2006 in revenge for an Afesip raid on a Phnom Penh brothel in 2004 – was false.

“Ms Mam has made this claim on numerous occasions despite having reported to post [the embassy] at the time of the incident that the girl was not kidnapped but rather lured by her peers from Phnom Penh to Battambang,” the cable notes.

The embassy had been aware of the discrepancy for years when UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon repeated the false claim at an April 2012 General Assembly meeting.

The scandal that has enveloped Mam was sparked by an investigation by the Cambodia Daily into allegations she had distorted her back-story in a deliberate attempt to curry favour with donors.

The May 2012 cable also shows that the US was aware of serious flaws within Afesip, but continued to offer support to Mam because she was an important magnet for funding for anti-trafficking work.

Sources in the anti-trafficking community in Phnom Penh are quoted as saying that Mam was “rotten to the core” and that she was “holding [the NGOs’ national coordinator] hostage”.

Local anti-trafficking groups, however, were “reticent to share their opinions on Somaly Mam” and had made a “strategic decision to remain silent on concerns about Afesip’s accounting systems and general lack of financial controls to avoid putting … other anti-[trafficking] NGOs ‘at risk’”.

They reportedly feared that “donors would [not] be able to separate Somaly Mam from the anti-[trafficking] organisations in Cambodia ‘that are actually doing good’”.

If Afesip “attracted negative international attention”, foreign-led anti-trafficking NGOs were concerned “that donors would cease funding all such NGOs”.

That negative attention came in spades when Newsweek covered the scandal, which subsequently led to Mam losing her position with the Somaly Mam Foundation (SMF), Afesip’s US-based fundraising arm. The SMF shut down in October 2014.

The US Embassy and Sao Chhoeurth, executive director of Afesip, declined to comment for this article.

Some of the harshest criticisms of Afesip provided to the embassy by sources, whose names were redacted in the cables, were reserved for the sub-standard medical and psychological care provided to trafficking survivors.

“[V]ictims resident in Afesip shelters had access to psychological care only once every three months, even in cases of extreme need,” the May 8 cable says. “The shelter staff was also reportedly unable to respond to emergency medical situations, even at the most basic level.”

A year ago, Mam founded a new anti-trafficking group, The New Somaly Mam Fund. Its business plan for 2015 said it had forged partnerships with four local NGOs, including mental health group the Transcultural Psychological Organisation.

All four NGOs, however, deny any knowledge of such formal arrangements.

The problems at Afesip had by 2012 led to an exodus of staff members and volunteers, who had “prematurely broken service contracts with Afesip over these issues and the ‘strong personalities’ of the leadership, which exhibited fierce resistance to change”, the May 2012 cable says. But despite the catalogue of problems with Mam and Afesip, the US Embassy determined that it should still support Mam’s celebrity status as a “positive force in the anti-trafficking effort”.

“She is an effective and far-reaching spokesperson who has raised awareness and significant funding for anti-[trafficking] interventions. Although there are concerns that the funding may be mismanaged and that Afesip’s shelters may be lacking in quality care, Somaly Mam’s efforts still represent a positive alternative to the severe sexual abuse victims would otherwise be facing,” the cable reads.

Another cable, sent from the embassy to Washington on November 2, 2012, deals with Long Pros, formerly a high-profile member of Mam’s “Voices for Change” program, which assisted survivors and raised awareness of her work. At that time, the embassy had already been questioning inconsistencies in Mam’s statements for at least six years.

Allegations that Pros was coached to tell a false story of her own experience of trafficking were characterised as “troublesome” to embassy officials.

Two SMF employees who were asked by embassy staff about the discrepancies in Pros’ account either said they were unaware of the issue or could not address the matter, pledging to “conduct further research”. SMF’s “relationship with facts is troublesome for Afesip’s relationship with post [the embassy], regardless of the investigation’s results”, the November cable says.

“Somaly Mam, SMF, and Afesip will need to put stringent mechanisms in place to restore their credibility.”

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