In Cambodia, foreign charities and non-government organizations serving as civil society groups are often applauded from home for the good work they do abroad. But those closer to such groups and their work on the ground often form a different perspective.
Illegal orphanages that beef-up numbers by accepting children who are in fact not orphans, the bribing of witnesses to testify in their favor in relevant court cases, allegations of bribing officials and turning charities into industries with expats funded by exorbitant pay packages are all common complaints.
Then came Afesip – an NGO that rescues children who have been trafficked for sex. Its president is Somaly Mam, whose celebrated work has won international awards. Afesip initially entered the public spotlight and attracted enormous financial and celebrity support largely on the strength of the testimony of a young woman called Meas Ratha.
Somaly Mam’s problem – according to a special report by the Cambodian Daily – is that Meas Ratha has now come forward and admitted that as a 14-year-old she was coached into making up the story for a documentary designed to help win Afesip support among the foreign financial donor community.
“The video that you see, everything that I put in is not my story,” she said.
A 1998 documentary tells how Meas Ratha was one of seven children in a poor family whose father had disappeared; her mother was ill and how she had been promised a job in a restaurant but wound up in a brothel. The horrible story was told with Somaly Mam at the side of the teary young girl.
The Somaly Mam Foundation (SMF) was soon established with offices in New York. Board members include Facebook chief executive officer Sheryl Sandberg and actress Susan Sarandon.
Years later, Meas Rath – married and a mother – has an unwanted reputation as a prostitute, her father remains unhappy, and both want the world to know that the testimony she gave to the television network France 2 was fabricated and scripted for her by Somaly Mam. Since the revelation, Mam has declined to comment.
“Everybody saw me and say ‘I a prostitute. Her mother sold her.’ They say like this. Everybody looks down on me,” she said.
Even after the Daily story was published, Estée Lauder Companies announced it was partnering with SMF on the International Day of the Girl and opening a Somaly Mam Beauty Salon.
Further investigation by the Cambodia Daily found another highly publicized SMF sex trafficking victim, Long Pros, had fabricated a story that included having an eye gouged out for refusing sex. In fact, her eye was surgically removed because of a tumor.
According to the newspaper, Somaly Mam also admitted that she made false claims in a speech given to the UN General Assembly that mentioned the deaths of eight girls she claimed to have rescued – originally stating that they were killed by the Cambodian army during a raid on her premises. Family have also denied Somaly Mam’s claims that her own daughter had been gang-raped by traffickers in retaliation for her work.
Cambodia has a large and dedicated NGO community, without which the government would be incapable of running much of the nation’s essential services like hospitals and schools. Most of these NGOs do good work but unfortunately the problems associated with Afesip and SMF are not isolated.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter at @lukeanthonyhunt.