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Do You Believe Somaly Mam?

5 min read
Do You Believe Somaly Mam?

Every story has at least three or four sides, with varying accounts and versions.

As Somaly Mam tries to rebuild her foundation in Cambodia, it is time to listen to another voice, that of her ex-husband, Pierre Legros. He was the cofounder of Acting for Women in Distressing Situations (AFESIP) in 1996 and the former director of AFESIP International.

Mam and Legros were together for 15 years, 13 of them legally married. According to Legros, “I’m the only person on earth who really knows most of the story. I want to say the truth and stop the lies. I also want to stop her using Nieng – my adopted daughter – as part of her campaign to make a comeback.”

The current situation

Pierre Legros sits back in his chair at a restaurant in Phnom Penh. “First of all, I’m not against Somaly. We had some good years together, we have two biological children and an adopted daughter. Unfortunately, I’m not allowed to see my 12-year old son, Nicolai. We split in 2004 when I was dismissed from AFESIP, but didn’t divorce until 2006. She then went on to set up The Somaly Mam Foundation in the United States in 2007.”

He shrugs his shoulders, “So what if she told some lies. Everyone in Asia lies and it is part of the social behavior.”

“Take her name for example. I knew her as Viriya or Aya, her mother named her Someny And now she is Somaly Mam. Who cares?”

“I do not want to destroy her reputation – as she did some good work and I’m proud of her. But people also need to know that there are allegations from Spain that she took a lot of donations that were intended for the foundation and it ended up for her personal use.

“The reason I stress this is because AFESIP was a group of local NGOs I setup all around Europe and Asia. AFESIP Spain became one of the most efficient in terms of activities in Madrid – protesting against trafficking – and all around Spain, for sensitization-advocacy. Then AFESIP Spain facilitated the fund-raising with foundation and the Spanish government, specifically the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They investigated and found some issues about whether Somaly committed financial fraud.”

“Her salary in 2011 was $125,642, which is a fortune in Cambodia.”

“The For Sale sign on the villa is to convince people that she is poor. It is not true. Then they will donate more money. The problem is that people in America believe whatever they are told and they don’t do their fact-checking properly. That may change now that questions of financial fraud about the former AFESIP Madrid office were raised in Spain.”

The beginnings of the icon

“Yes, Somaly was a prostitute when I met her. Then we fell in love and all of that changed.”

“UNICEF started to donate money and we set up a center to help girls and women who had been trafficked into the sex industry. We all need to dream. I considered my destiny to help other people. It is what I was – and still am – committed to doing.”

“I was the director and organizer behind the operation, the person in the shadows, really. I knew the direction we needed to go. So I took risks and encouraged Somaly to develop her freedom and to escape from her from cultural dictates. I know that if you feed a woman what she needs you will create a superwoman. And that is what happened: she became an icon. Because, really, she is also very smart, more so than me.”

“Somaly was the face of the operation, the spokesperson, the marketing machine. It was her personality that was at work. She told her story – and other accounts of girls and women being trafficked so well – that money started to flow into AFESIP.”

Legros went on to comment that after she appeared on television many times and began to get international recognition he suggested that she should write a book. The book was first published in France in 2005, before she set up her foundation in America in 2007. The Road of Lost Innocence became an instant best-seller when it was translated into English.

“I did not tell her what to write. It was her story, not mine. It is interesting, however, that the French and the English versions do not bear any resemblance to each other.”

“After the book, she was invited everywhere and met everyone who counted. The list of her contacts ranges from Oprah, to Hilary Clinton, to the Queen of Spain and politicians from around the world. Of course I encouraged and supported her. She was my wife and the mother of my children. We were already separated, but I pushed her to accept the invitation to open the Special Olympic games in 2005.”

Some personality disorder questions

Starting life in a small village of Kompong Cham province where life was, at best, subsistence, and ending up as an international celebrity is not a journey without its demands and problems.

Legros and an Amerian psychologist who volunteered at AFESIP theorized that as Mam began to increasingly mix and mingle with the rich and famous she moved towards developing a narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). The indications of NPD include a grandiose sense of self-importance and constant demand for attention and admiration. Other traits include exploitation of others and a total lack of empathy.

Legros and the psychologist now suggest that Mam exhibits the full-blown signs of NPD. In the saint-sinner debate he is the first person to raise the question about borderline personality issues.

“Somaly is not happy. She is a depressed woman.” Other accounts from staff at the center verify that she has temper and can be explosive over small incidents.

“The only times I have come out publicly to challenge the lies she told is when she said eight girls at the center had been killed. The second time was when she alleged that our adopted daughter had been gang-raped. In these instances I had to set the record straight.”

What next?

Legros maintains a low profile. “I want this article published in outside Cambodia, because that is where most of Somaly’s supporters are. I think they need to know the truth. Here in Phnom Penh it would be too dangerous. She is very well-connected and knows many high-ranking people in the government, the police, and the army.”

“When we split in 2004, she moved her body-guard into the bedroom. He had a gun and a license to kill. I know I can disappear tomorrow, this is the Kingdom.”

Legros is currently working in Phnom Penh.

He smiles, “Eventually I want to retire on a boat and not have too much contact with other humans. But before I do that, I want to tell the true story of Somaly Mam and how she became an icon. I have the duty to do it without grey area or lies.”

“For me, Somaly is an imposture. But within a corrupt system full of similar people, it is hardly a surprise.”

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