Bangkok: A celebrity Cambodian anti-sex trafficking activist feted at charity events in Australia has resigned from her foundation over revelations that she fabricated a child-sex slave victim’s story.
Somaly Mam, a beautiful and charming campaigner who rubs shoulders with Hollywood stars and some of America’s top business people, will be permanently removed from the Somaly Mam Foundation, the organisation’s executive director Gina Reiss-Wilchins said.
The resignation followed an independent legal investigation that confirmed media reports, including in Fairfax Media, raising doubts about the story of 13-year-old Long Pros that helped Somaly Mam raise millions of dollars for her charity.
Ms Pros’ supposed treatment and mutilation were even more horrific than the story of Ms Mam, who claimed she was raped at 12, forced to marry at 15 and then sold into prostitution.
Ms Pros told television documentaries, the New York Times and the Oprah Winfrey Show she was 13 in 2005, and hadn’t even had her first period, when a young woman kidnapped her and sold her to a brothel in Phnom Penh.
Three times she was painfully stitched up and sold as a virgin, for which the brothel owner was paid large sums, the story went.
“I was beaten every day, sometimes two or three times a day,” claimed Ms Pros, who expressed her grief to former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and actresses including Meg Ryan and Susan Sarandon.
Ms Pros said she was never paid, could not insist on condoms and twice became pregnant and was subjected to crude abortions, the second of which left her in great pain, prompting her to plead with the brothel owner for time to recuperate.
“I was begging, hanging on to her feet and asking for rest,” Ms Pros claimed.
That’s when the woman gouged out Pros’ right eye with a piece of metal, she claimed.
When the eye became infected, spraying blood and pus on customers, the owner discarded her and she was taken in by Ms Mam’s organisation, she said.
But a series of articles initially published in the Cambodia Daily and followed up by Fairfax Media and Newsweek revealed evidence Ms Pros had her eye removed in hospital because of a tumour that developed in her early childhood.
Te Sereybonn, director of the Takeo Eye Hospital, told Fairfax Media last November that Ms Pros came to the hospital three times in 2005 and eye specialist and surgeon Pok Thorn told him she had a tumour inside her eye that had to be removed.
“The eye (problem) was not caused by beating,” he said.
Questions have also been raised about other victims’ stories used to raise money for the Somaly Mam Foundation that claims to have “touched the lives of over 100,000 woman and girls", including treating 6000 people at a free medical clinic in Phnom Penh’s red light district.
Pierre Legros, Ms Mam’s former husband, told Fairfax Media that a claim by Ms Mam that their daughter Ning had been kidnapped by armed men in 2005 and gang-raped in retaliation for her work exposing a brothel owner was not true.
Mr Legros said Ning, who is now 23, was not kidnapped but ran away with her then boyfriend.
Last year Ms Mam’s communications department in New York said the physical evidence, Ms Pros’ assurances and research into her accounts “led us to believe” her story was true.
But in a statement on the Somaly Mam Foundation website, Ms Reiss-Wilchins said Ms Pros would also be removed from any affiliation with the foundation or its partner “but will help her transition to the next phase of her life".
Ms Pros has been working in a Somaly Mam-linked Voices for Change program, an organisation that works to combat human trafficking and sexual exploitation globally.
The Somaly Mam Foundation is listed on its websites as one of its international projects.
''Somaly Mam has been an amazing support and advocate for the work we have done and our partnership has been a solid one built on respect, trust and a shared vision to see a world free of human trafficking and sexual exploitation of women and girls,'' Project Futures chief executive Stephanie Lorenzo told Fairfax Media.
Ms Reiss-Wilchins said Ms Mam’s resignation effective immediately followed an investigation by the US law firm Goodwin Procter.
“While we are extremely saddened by this news, 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," Ms Reiss-Wilchins wrote.
Ms Reiss-Wilchins said "we look forward to moving past these events", adding that hundreds of woman and girls in three of the foundation's centres in Cambodia would be given the care they "desperately need".
A story, "Activist resigns over fake claims" (May 31), should not have said the Voices for Change program is run by non-profit organisation Project Futures.