Restorative Justice in the Cambodian Community
by Pen Khek Chear
School of Social Work
Between 1969 and 1973, the Republic of Vietnam and the United States
bombed and invaded Cambodia in an effort to attack two Communist
groups, the Viet Cong of Vietnam and the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia. As
a result, two million Cambodians were displaced and fled to the
capital, Phnom Penh. It is believed that the devastation from the
bombings encouraged Cambodians, mostly peasants, to join the Khmer
In 1975, the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, took over Cambodia. The
Khmer Rouge had a utopian-agricultural vision and sent the entire
population for long marches to agricultural projects. The Khmer Rouge
was determined to destroy anything considered “Western,”
intellectual, or a signifier of wealth, including people. During
their rule, out of 8 million people, more than 1 million died from
starvation, torture, disease, and work exhaustion (Chandler 2008).
Today, Cambodia is a promising country that is trying to revive
itself through economic and social development. It has a growing
tourism and textile industry. Education and social welfare programs
are growing, too (Asia Development Bank 2009). However, Cambodia
continues to struggle with issues such as corruption, sex
trafficking/tourism, poverty, interpersonal distrust and
interpersonal violence (World Health Organization 2009). In the
Cambodian Diaspora, there are refugees around the world who maintain
an active transnational (financial, cultural, familial and emotional)
relationship to Cambodians in Cambodia (Chan 2004).
This paper discusses justice and restorative justice among Cambodians
in Cambodia and transnational Cambodian Americans. There is an
overview of social roles, social order and Cambodian Buddhism. It is
important to understand these aspects of Cambodian culture in order
to understand the relational ideals among Cambodians. For example,
there is an important distinction between instituted religion and
civil religion in the Cambodian community and thus aspects to
justice. There is then contextualization of the principles and
practices of restorative justice and the social and cultural values
of Cambodians. This is explained in three sections dedicated to the
stakeholder units of community, victims and offenders. Lastly, it
should be noted that in this paper the “Cambodian community”
refers to Cambodia and transnational Cambodian communities.
Social order, social
roles and Cambodian Buddhism
and social order
While Cambodia is not an official Buddhist state, it is estimated
that 95% of the country is Buddhist (CIA 2011). It has been, for
centuries, a region dominated by Buddhist culture and thought.
Cambodian Americans continue to be predominately Buddhist. Theravada,
the oldest form of Buddhism, is the predominant sect in Cambodia
(Harris 2005). The differences between the three major sects of
Buddhism—Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana—are debated.
Generally, Theravada is known for its emphasis on monastic practices
to reach nibbana, an ultimate state of awareness. Cambodian
Buddhists also believe in reincarnation and the law of kamma,
a theory of action and results based on the conditions of past,
present and future life. For example, bad/negative actions may lead a
person to suffer in their next life (Mitchell 2002).
In the Cambodian community, traditionally, meditation practices and
Buddhist scholarship has been exclusive to monks. Monks serve as
spiritual and community leaders in the Cambodian community. Cambodian
monks are responsible for holding services where laypeople listen to
Buddhist teachings and participate in rituals such as chanting
scriptures. To the layperson, monks are an authority for everyday
moral and ethical issues. Through interpretation of scripture,
Buddhist monks in the Cambodian community helped develop the social
roles and social order that continues to exist today (Chan 2004).
Another important aspect of Buddhism in the Cambodian community is
its syncretic nature with folk religion and animism. While there are
institutions and temples that entirely devote themselves to Buddhism
as it’s been described in classic Buddhist scripture, laypeople
have often practiced a syncretic form of Buddhism. For example,
laypeople may use mediums or healers called gru. The gru
provides fortune telling, healing for physical ailments and often
gives advice, based on spiritual insight, for relationship issues. In
the perspective of laypeople, there is no distinction between
Buddhism based on classic scripture and the syncretic nature of their
practices. Many mediums and healers refer to Buddhism teachings and
adopt Buddhist symbols despite criticism by some Buddhists that gru
practices are contradictory to Buddhist beliefs and superstitious
(Marston and Guthrie 2004).
For many centuries, Buddhism has influenced monarchal rule and
government in Cambodia. Kingship, for example, was a reflection of
kammic rebirth and therefore the king had an inherent, spiritual
right to his throne. However, kingship could be challenged if there
was evidence of corruption as defined by Buddhist thought. Kings had
“moral imperatives besides being politically wise”
(Harris 2005, p. 45) and were expected to follow two ideals: (1) the
cakka-vatti, which is defined in various suttas
addressing rulers and their expectations, and (2) King Ashoka, a
legendary Indian emperor who instituted Buddhist ethics in his
kingdom. Today, it is still believed by many in Cambodia that at all
levels of social relationships—family, communities, and
government—there is divine intervention and determination
In traditional Cambodian culture, gender and age-based roles are very
important. It is embedded in social interaction and language. For
example, there are different ways to ask people to eat. If a person
is an elder or of high social status, they are asked to eat by
saying, pisa. If a person is a peer or stranger, it is polite
to ask them to eat by saying, yam. In an informal
relationship, such as between close friends, people may say, si
When a man or woman is spoken to who is older but not yet an elder,
they are addressed as bong. An older brother or sister is also
addressed as bong. When a man or woman is spoken to who is
younger, they are addressed as oun. In a marriage, the husband
may refer to his wife as oun and the wife may refer to her
husband as bong (Derks 2008).
The language that Cambodians use with each other reflects moral and
behavioral guidelines for men and women. Women are to follow chbab
srey, which translates to “Code of Women.” Men are to
follow chbab proh, which translates to “Code of Men.”
The codes are taught in schools, at home and by monks. There are
similar teachings for both women and men. For example, both are
taught from a very young age how to properly address adults,
especially elders. However, there are differences in the way they
should interact and address each other (Brown 2000). The following is
a sample of the “Code of Women” that was written
centuries ago but still applied today:
skirt must not rustle while you walk. You must be patient and eat
only after the men in your family have finished. You must serve and
respect your husband at all times and above all else. You cannot
touch your husband’s head without first bowing in respect. You
must prove your patience and never respond to your husband’s
anger. School is more useful for boys than girls. A woman’s
place is at home tending to her husband and children (Challenging
Tradition in Cambodia 2011).
rights activists in Cambodia have fought the patriarchal aspect of
the codes. NGOs and different governmental agencies are working to
change the way in which chbab srey and chbab proh are
taught by schools and Buddhist monks. Some have suggested that,
combined with poverty and lack of education, the patriarchal aspect
of chbab srey and chbab proh is responsible for
widespread domestic violence in the Cambodian community (Challenging
Tradition in Cambodia 2011).
the flaws of the codes, it is very important to understand their
significance today. During the Khmer Rouge rule, these centuries old
traditions were systematically destroyed. The Cambodian community,
especially elders, holds on tightly to chbab srey and chbab
proh for this reason. Encouraging these practices and social
roles is not stubbornness nor intentional sexism but an act of
cultural preservation. When the principles and practices of
restorative justice are used in the Cambodian community, one should
be sensitive to the ongoing effort among Cambodians to preserve and
restore traditional culture.
and the Cambodian community
Cambodian Buddhists, things are the way they are because of kamma.
From a scripturally-based Theravadan Buddhist perspective, one
intervenes in suffering by awakening to the Four Noble Truths, which
are: (1) Life means suffering, (2) the origin of suffering is
attachment/desire, (3) the cessation of suffering is non-attachment
(nibbana), and (4) the path to cessation is the Eightfold
Path, a guideline for ethical and mental development. Within the
Eightfold Path, Buddhists are encouraged to be mindful of their
actions and intentions to deal with conflict (Mitchell 2002).
However, as described earlier, the syncretic beliefs among Cambodians
lead them to also use gru to alleviate suffering and deal with
conflict. Here is a personal example from the author of this paper
that occurred in the Cambodian American community:
an attempted robbery at my aunt’s liquor store, where one of
the robbers was shot and killed in the store by police. The liquor
store is in a predominately African American community; the robber
and the police officer were also African American. The local
community was outraged when they heard about the killing and
suspicious of the fact that my aunt refused to talk to press or
community members about what had happen. This led to a boycott of her
store. She went to a gru
for help. The gru said
that, in order to alleviate the current problems, she had to paint
the back of two turtles and let them go into a local creek. This
would send the bad spirits away. She did as she was told. The boycott
eventually stopped and after some months, things went back to normal.
The aunt in this story speaks English well, so language was not a
barrier to dialogue. But what she could not understand, or rather
accept, was the community demand for dialogue after an incident of
violence. The Cambodian community appreciates and encourages social
cohesion and therefore her reluctance to participate in dialogue
wasn’t an act of individualism as one may assume. Western
perspectives of justice may see dialogue and directness as leading to
greater social cohesion, but Cambodians tend to believe the opposite:
to be indirect is to be polite and saves face for all parties (Chan
2004). In this example, the African American community wanted a
restorative process and to hear from everyone including the aunt. She
did want to be heard but under the conditions of her culture and
Given this example, where dialogue is indirect, it may be challenging
to implement the restorative practice of circles in the Cambodian
community. Circles is a process that brings victims, offenders and
community members together to, often times but not exclusively,
discuss an offending event and determine how a community can heal
itself. ROCA, a community organization in Revere and Chelsea, MA,
uses circles and serves a relatively large Cambodian population.
However, the circles are often used with youth raised in the United
States who are Cambodian and from other ethnic backgrounds (Watson
2008). In a Cambodian community context, with its specific social
roles, expectations and hierarchy, the circle may be a mismatch
because it is intended to be a non-hierarchal form of dialogue.
Family group conferencing (FGC), which has no intention of being
hierarchal or non-hierarchal, seems more of a match with the social
values in the Cambodian community.
The practices of restorative and retributive justice, in a
Western context, accept the expression of anger by victims (Zehr
2002). In a trauma framework, it is accepted as a natural and
necessary event in achieving healing and/or justice (Yoder 2005). In
the practices of victim offender mediation (VOM) and FGC, involved
parties are asked to respectfully dialogue with each other. They may
not be able to curse at each other or call each other names, but they
are encouraged to talk about how they’ve been hurt or angered.
Theravada Buddhism acknowledges that people will feel angry, however,
people are discouraged from harboring anger and expressing it. Here
is an excerpt from the first chapter, entitled ‘Twin-Verses,’
of the Dhammapada addressing anger toward an offense:
abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me,’—in
those who harbor such thoughts hatred will never cease.
abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me,’—in
those who do not harbor such thoughts hatred will cease”
encouragement for restraint of anger is again addressed in a chapter
of the Dhammapada entitled, ‘Anger’:
who holds back rising anger like a rolling chariot, him I call a real
driver; other people are but holding the reins.” (Muller 2008)
Buddhist ideal suggests that the betterment of oneself and others can
be achieved without expression or thought of anger. In the syncretic
practice of Cambodian Buddhism, a gru and laypeople may follow
what is said in the Dhammapada. It does not seem common
practice for a gru to encourage confrontation or dialogue
between a victim and offender (Marston and Guthrie 2004). In a
situation of injustice, a layperson may approach a gru to
spiritually heal pain or loss accrued from an offense.
terms of traditional roles and expectations, restorative practices
should consider the status of people in family and community contexts
when encouraging victims and offenders to express themselves. There
is not a singular identity for victims and offenders in a Cambodian
restorative context. For example, if the victim was a woman and the
offender was a man in VOM, there is community wide expectation that
both parties still adhere to chbab srey and chbab proh.
In a Western context, a woman may be encouraged to say whatever she
feels, but Cambodians may see this as “unwomanly.” From a
Western perspective, it would be difficult to accept because the
victim is in a subordinate position to the offender. It may be
possible to alleviate the power imbalance in this interaction while
respecting traditions by encouraging involvement of family and
community members. If a woman cannot fully speak for herself, the
voice of supportive elders and men can balance the victim-offender
of what is written on justice in Cambodia pertains to the prosecution
of the Khmer Rouge. In the vast literature on this issue, there have
also been critiques about the disconnection between non-governmental
organizations (NGOs) and the concerns of the Cambodian community,
namely that the demand for prosecution is largely an effort by NGOs.
The Cambodian community, on the other hand, has not responded with
the same fervor for justice and the prosecution of the Khmer Rouge.
Some have theorized that the lackluster response for transitional
justice among Cambodians reflects cultural beliefs pertaining to
justice (International Center for Transitional Justice 2009). What,
then, do Cambodians want in terms of justice? What is the expectation
of offenders, if any?
are Buddhist texts, in line with Theravadan tradition, that discuss
offenders and justice. The Dhammapada has a chapter entitled,
‘Punishment,’ which describes the kammic result of an
who seeking his own happiness does not punish or kill beings who also
long for happiness, will find happiness after death… He who
inflicts pain on innocent and harmless persons, will soon come to one
of these ten states:  He will have cruel suffering, loss, injury
of the body, heavy affliction, or loss of mind,  or a misfortune
coming from the king, or a fearful accusation, or loss of relations,
or destruction of treasures,  or lightning-fire will burn his
houses; and when his body is destroyed, the fool will go to hell.”
it is taught that one way or another, an offender will face the
consequence of their actions. The first line of the quote suggests
that the only thing that should not be of consequence is punishment
or violence from the victim or anyone for that matter. “Beings
who also long for happiness” include offenders, with Buddhists
believing that everyone longs for happiness (Hanh 1999).
everyone longs for happiness, this means that everyone also suffers,
where suffering is defined as desire or longing for anything. The
Brahmaviharas, or Four Immeasurables/Four Sublime States, are
Buddhist virtues concerning the relationship among humans and other
beings. One of the Four Immeasurables is upekkha, or
equanimity. Here is a definition:
real meaning of upekkha
is equanimity, not indifference in the sense of unconcern for others.
As a spiritual virtue, upekkha
means equanimity in the face of the fluctuations of worldly fortune.
It is evenness of mind, unshakeable freedom of mind, a state of inner
equipoise that cannot be upset by gain and loss, honor and dishonor,
praise and blame, pleasure and pain” (Bodhi 1998)
the worldview where divine justice exists in kamma, liberation
from suffering is one’s own responsibility and where no beings
are exempt from kamma and suffering, there is no victim or
offender. The victim does not suffer anymore than the offender. To be
Enlightened is to be aware that there is essentially no difference
justice recognizes this to some extent: that people are in a web of
relationships, all of who have interdependent needs (Zehr 2002).
However, in a Theravadan Buddhist perspective, the methods that
restorative justice uses to help people realize interdependence may
be disagreed upon. In VOM, FGC and circles, there is recognition of
the harm to victims and the obligation and accountability of
offenders. Community members also become stakeholders in the
restorative process between the victim and offender. From a
Theravadan Buddhist perspective, awareness of interdependence and
healing is ideally achieved through personal insight (e.g.
meditation, mindfulness) (Mitchell 2002). In other words, while an
offender is responsible for the harm they’ve done to others,
victims are equally responsible for the suffering they feel from
harm. Dialogue isn’t rejected but neither is it seen as
necessary to realize one’s role and responsibilities as
principles and practices of restorative justice, as they’ve
been developed in Western contexts, do not fully match the social
values in the Cambodian community. Hierarchal social values, such as
chbab srey and chbab proh, conflict with the
non-hierarchal ideal in circles. In VOM, gender roles and
expectations are active and challenges victim empowerment ideals. The
victim and offender dichotomy, a relationship of right and wrong,
challenges the Buddhist value of equanimity. FGC is perhaps the most
compatible practice to Cambodian social values. The principles of
restorative justice do match with Cambodian social values in the
mutual recognition of interconnectedness and collective
responsibility. The preservation and re-building of culture is very
important among Cambodians because of the social and economic losses
incurred during the Vietnam War and Khmer Rouge period. Any effort to
promote restorative practices in the Cambodian community should bear
this in mind.
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