Juvenile Crimes: Cambodian Teens At Risk

by Sothida Tan
International Development
UCLA Class of 2000

Juvenile crimes among Southeast Asian youths have become a major concern for the Asian American community. Southeast Asian “trouble” teens are involved in criminal acts that have ranged from petty theft to violent gang activity. Widespread concern has prompted attention from law enforcement agencies, the media and community leaders. Since 1980, major urban cities have seen an increase of criminal activity, especially among Vietnamese and Cambodian youths (Sullivan). In recent years a rapid increase among Vietnamese and Cambodian gangs has increased their membership to about 15% of the 200 gangs in the area (Northeast Asian Weekly). Enforcement agencies have speculated that the wave of crimes are attributable to the population swell of Southeast Asian refugees beginning in the mid 70’s and through the early 80’s (Weikel). Once viewed as a traditional , passive group of peoples, many researchers are trying to understand the delinquency patterns among Vietnamese and Cambodian youth. Although both groups have been involved in gang violence, one group is at greater risk of entering a world of robberies, shootings, rapes and homicide. Vietnamese teens share similarities with Cambodian teens, yet Cambodian youths are more susceptible to entering a criminal lifestyle. Cambodian teens face cultural and societal obstacles that perpetuate a cycle of failed dreams, empty promises and lost hope for the future. In these cases, gangs seem to be the only alternative. Khmer youths face various barriers: a past genocide, urban poverty, family fragmentation, education struggles, language problems, peer harassment and downward assimilation that hinder their social development and can contribute to society’s delinquency problem.
       Vietnam and Cambodia are two neighboring countries that share boundaries and some cultural similarities. Both were embroiled in civil war during the 1960's and 70's that pushed thousands of residents to flee as refugees. When the Vietnam War ended in 1975, over a hundred thousand Vietnamese western sympathizers emigrated to the United States. The United States Office of Refugee Resettlement reports 125,000 Vietnamese refugees arrived at that time. A mere 4,600 Cambodians arrived in the United States during the same year (Refugee Reports-1993). Those Cambodians that were lucky to escape the Khmer Rouge regime were part of the upper and middle class city dwellers as well as U.S. alliance workers. For four terrifying years, the communist insurgency took power in Cambodia and is responsible for the horrific genocide of an estimated 1.7 million people. After the Vietnamese invasion in Cambodia on 25 December 1978, many Cambodians fled to the Thai border where refugee camps were ultimately set up (Kiernan-450). Untrusting of the Vietnamese powers, many Cambodians chose to live in the camps under poor sanitary and unsafe conditions rather than remain or return to Cambodia. The bulk of Cambodian refugees did not emigrate to the United States until the early 1980's. In all about 150,000 Cambodian refugees have resettled in America. More Vietnamese refugees continued to arrive in the States under the U.S. Refugee Act of 1980 as well, but one given year, 1975, saw the single greatest influx of Vietnamese refugees (Refugee Reports -1993). The reports diagram the similarity of two Southeast Asian peoples as they fled war ravaged homelands. The numbers also illustrate the different migratory patterns of the two countries in which Vietnamese people had enough citizens to reestablish a community and welcome subsequent Vietnamese refugee immigrants as early as 1975.
       Cambodians on average are more likely to be drawn into gangs than their Vietnamese peers because of the adverse effects of the Khmer Rouge genocide on their mental health. Many of these youths had witnessed deadly beatings, murders, sickness and starvation, which left them with mental and emotional scars. For instance, three Cambodian gang members of the Asian Boyz have been convicted for their roles in a 1995 crime spree that began with an ambush against a rival gang and claimed seven lives (Larrubia). Psychiatrist Dr. Williams Sacks testified that one of the defendants, Roatha Buth, suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from the violence he experienced under Pol Pot’s rule. Buth was 6 when he was in Cambodia, but he had recurring nightmares up until age 9 of cannibalism and the Khmer Rouge guarding a boat of dead bodies (Larrubia). Severe mental health conditions affect Cambodian teenagers and distort their reality. Researchers commonly report on “the overwhelming incidence of recurrent nightmares and sleep disturbances among refugees, especially concentration camp survivors” – symptoms often considered the markers of post-traumatic stress disorder (Rozee et al-18). Also, exposure to the Khmer Rouge and camp life can desensitize an individual’s regard for human life. When one witnesses the “killing fields” first hand, violence in America doesn’t have the same shocking effects. Margie deMonchy, a social worker who has worked in refugee camps along the Thai-Cambodian border, expressed the following concern: “The 16-year-olds grew up under Pol Pot. That is significant. We term that era a holocaust…life and death take on a whole different perspective” (Hart). In a study conducted on Cambodian children in America, researchers correlated “the extreme suffering students endured as children under the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia” with a likelier display of deviant behavior (Sack et al-380).
       In another recent trial, two Cambodian youths are pending sentences in the slaying deaths of five family members during a home invasion (Grenada). Run Chhoun and Samreth Pan are responsible for the torture and killings of a Vietnamese family in San Bernardino. The two teens are alleged leaders of the notorious Tiny Rascals gang. The multiple killings has sparked attention as “the bloodiest murder in San Bernardino history.” Arn Shorn, a social worker, blames it on the Khmer Rouge: “They have the Khmer Rouge poison now. That poison uses guns to solve problems, and violence and intimidation to overturn the traditional order – it represents an existence these gang members’ parents thought they had left behind" (Isett). Attorneys for Chhoun and Pan described to the jury the tragic upbringing of the boys under the Khmer Rouge and the unprepared life they had to endure when they resettled in the United States (Grenada). All four Cambodian youth gang members share experiences of the Cambodian genocide as well as shortcomings in the United States.
       Cambodians who have emigrated to the U.S. during the 1980's are predominantly from a poor, rural background (Smith-Hefner-9). They have primarily been resettled in congested, poor, low-income housing projects. The neighborhoods are characterized as “ghettos” and are usually crime-infested. Parents also suffer from mental health problems caused by the genocide and therefore cannot fully participate in attentive parenting, despite being concerned about their children. San Diego University sociology professor Kenji Ima says that “even if they wanted to be good parents, they can’t, they are emotionally distraught and don’t have the energy to be parents” (Sullivan). Roatha Buth, the convicted Asian Boyz gang member, had expected the United States to be an “American dream” but his family escaped the “killing fields” and came to the killing streets. They dwelled in a housing project in a Latino neighborhood where he shared a one-bedroom apartment with his mother and sister. The three had to collect aluminum cans from garbage bins for extra money (Larrubia).
       The Cambodian Population Profile for Los Angeles county in 1990 found the per capita income of Cambodians to be $4,639, the median household income to be $17,343, and 46% percent of Cambodians to be living in poverty. In comparison, the median income for Vietnamese families almost doubled at $30,925 and the percentage of Vietnamese families living in poverty was 27%, almost half the level for Cambodians (Cambodian Population Profile-1990). Generally, Vietnamese families have been able to raise themselves above the poverty level and governmental assistance. Vietnamese groups have been here longer and can be expected to have a higher employment rate (Strand et al-116). Also refugees from Vietnam tended to come from a more urban background and were generally literate and active in the workforce back in Vietnam. These characteristics enable Vietnamese refugees to more easily transition into the American workforce (Hein-138). In contrast, Cambodians have a harder time transitioning into the American workplace because of their rural background and limited education (Hein-139). Cambodian families are poorer and are marginalized in society as they constitute the “have-nots.” They are at risk of losing their children to gang activities such as robberies that can bring the gang member instant riches. A young Cambodian male describes the “lure of the streets – the cars, fancy clothing, and expensive jewelry [as] far more appealing than his parents' humble rural ways” (Isett).
       Most Cambodian refugees have lost immediate family members during the war. Family fragmentations contribute to a lack of role models for Cambodian youths. In the documentary “A.K.A. Don Bonus,” a Cambodian-American youth named Don seeks a role model to replace his father whom he lost at an early age to the Khmer Rouge. The father figure becomes his oldest brother. Although Don does not participate in gang activity, his depression deepens when he feels he is losing his eldest brother to a busy work life and a new wife and child. This depressed condition can lead, and in many other instances have led, youths to seek a surrogate family life in gangs. Art Chhay, a former gang member reflects on his past lifestyle and reveals, “I see people, like, they have their real dad. They have the right to call him ‘dad.’ That’s their real father. That’s blood. I see people like that, and sometimes I get depressed” (Harris). Lack of parental figures and supervision can often leave children vulnerable to the lure of gangs.
       Often times even youths that do have a mother or father rarely see their parent(s). Because of the constraints of trying to make ends meet, some parents work two jobs holding 16-hour shifts (Holt). For families who endure illness and financial problems, gangs provide a family network support for the youngsters. In fact, younger members often times refer to the older individuals as “bang” – which translates to older sibling in Khmer (Smith-Hefner-190). Cambodian parents are as deeply concerned about the well being of their children as any other parents, but their own psychological traumas and day-to-day struggles may affect their parenting skills and involvement in their children's lives. In a 1985 California survey conducted on the mental health of Southeast Asian refugees, 84% of Cambodian households had at least one member under a physician’s care in comparison to 45% percent of Vietnamese households (Reader-W4-The Refugee Context-21). Most Vietnamese came to the United States with intact families, and if they did not, they soon reunited with other members through secondary migrations, forming strong distinctive Vietnamese communities in the process (Zhou et al-223). The lack of intact families as well as significant community cohension are other factors that put Cambodian youth more at risk of joining gangs.
       Difficulty in school is yet another factor which sets apart Cambodian and Vietnamese youth. A study done in San Diego found the GPA of Cambodian youths to be well below the white majority average, whereas Vietnamese youths generally performed above the white majority average. Many Cambodian students in the 1980's entered the American school system at the age of 14 or 15 with minimal formal education and no command of the English language (Hart). Many of them were not literate in their native language and they struggled extensively in the American school system. The frustration and embarrassment from peers is perhaps one reason why Cambodian teens have the highest high school dropout rate among Southeast Asian refugees. The figures are alarming and threaten Cambodian youths with larger problems as they grow up in society. Most Cambodians feel the high school dropout rate for teens is part of a larger systematic societal problem that attracts youths to seek out gangs and commit crimes (Hart).
       Some Cambodian teens sought refuge in gang life for protection. Sociology professor Kenji Ima and Union of Pan-Asian Communities social worker Bounhong Khommarath trace gang involvement of Cambodians in San Diego back to 1988. During these early years, Cambodian teens were harassed by Black and Latino gang members (Sullivan). The Cambodian teens decided to form their own protection group. They developed hand signals, tagged and created their own turf. Nevertheless, there is a stark difference between these early Cambodian gangs and their Vietnamese counterparts in San Diego County. The Vietnamese gangs are involved in crimes that have caused the San Diego Police Department to keep a close watch. In contrast, the Cambodians had simply created a group to protect themselves from other dangerous groups. As one Cambodian youth describes, “I joined the Black Cambodian Killers to protect myself and my people. Others were fighting us, and we fought back. In 1982, we had 20 people—they were my friends, and we were alone” (Isett). They were involved in activities that distinguish themselves but they were not necessary criminal in nature. Unfortunately, many of these innocently created protection groups have turned to gang violence and crimes.
       Assimilation and role reversals has had a detrimental effect on the Cambodian community as well. The “new individualism” found in American society is not characteristic of the Buddhist teachings that play a major role in Cambodian life (Smith-Hefner-198). The older and younger generations are experiencing a conflict of values as one seeks to preserve and the other wants to break free of traditional Cambodian norms. Rona Field, a psychologist who has worked with Cambodian gang members, stated that these youth are “essentially torn loose” and uncertain of their identity (Harris). Gang specialists say gang life can sometimes start at home when there is a lack of parental control (Harris). Cambodian parents are used to disciplining their children through corporal punishment, but in the United States alarm of child abuse rings out. Parents afraid of the American system refrain from physical discipline and feel as if they have lost control over their children. Some Cambodian children who arrived with their families at an early age picked up English first and in turn must translate for their parents. This can sometimes pose a problem as children are then able to invert the traditional family power structure and lose respect for their elders. They are used to translating for their parents in grocery stores, welfare offices and the school. Parents feel that they cannot impart cultural norms like “obey your parents” because of an unbalanced transfer of power. Cambodian parents feel they have lost control over their future.
       The hope for tomorrow’s Cambodian generation is not dim nor is it over. Gang violence is also a societal problem and must be dealt with through government-funded prevention programs. The problem is not “fixed” when a teen criminal is locked up. More awareness needs to be raised in the communities as well as at the state and national level. Intervention programs that are culturally sensitive and aimed at education, awareness and preventive measures can help Cambodian teens who are at risk of criminal activity. Cambodian community centers that mix the best of traditional and Western values can reeducate the youths and politicize and empower them with knowledge. Art Chhay, a former gang member of Asian Boyz, has gradually moved from the “gangsta” life. He writes poems about the destruction of gang life instead of violent rap lyrics. Instead of selling illegal substances, he sells street clothing that he has designed. Chhay today counsels young Cambodians to stay out of gangs and crimes instead of recruiting gang members (Harris). Many Cambodian teens are “tired” or hurt by the violent lifestyles but they need guidance and support to move out of the “old” ways and into a new life. Cambodian parents, elders and community leaders must join forces in saving and building a stronger future.


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