Juvenile Crimes: Cambodian Teens At Risk
by Sothida Tan
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
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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