Cambodian Men Fall Prey to Gang Violence
Gillian Flaccus, Las Vegas Sun, AP, Jan. 30
Six young Cambodian-American men have been gunned down in this working-class city since October in a rash of suspected gang violence, shedding light on a refugee community struggling with a painful generational divide.
All of the victims, including a U.S. Marine just returned from Iraq, were the children of Cambodian refugees who fled the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s. Police say at least three had gang affiliations; the others may have been cases of mistaken identity.
Police believe the shootings were gang-related, but have made no definitive link and no arrests have been made.
The parents of one victim, 20-year-old Woodtee Bunthung, said their son was taken from them by a violent urban America they never imagined when they fled their home country more than 20 years ago.
Experts say the experiences of Cambodian parents are so different from those of their American-born children that they are not equipped to deal with the problems their children face. For support, their children turn to gangs.
Sgt. Paul LeBaron, a police spokesman in Long Beach, said the culture clash is unprecedented in his community, which has the largest concentration of Cambodians outside of Phnom Penh.
“There’s a lot of strife between family members,” LeBaron said. “They have an experience that is unique to anybody else in Long Beach, and that will demonstrate itself when they become gang members.”
Experts say the generational transition is made worse by the legacy of Cambodia’s brutal past. Alejandro Alonso, an expert on Los Angeles-area gangs, said black gangs fear Cambodian gang members because they are “reckless and unyielding” — even more so than others.
“They come from a very, very violent country. These people who grew up under a repressive regime with violence around them bring some of those experiences with them into the streets,” Alonso said.
Others disagree that Cambodia history predisposes its immigrants to gang life. Thomas Douglas, a doctoral student at the University of California, Irvine, who has done extensive field work with Long Beach’s Cambodians, said the city has dozens of gangs and only about one-fifth of those are Asian.
“It’s a reflection of a much bigger problem that’s not unique to the Cambodians,” he said. “There’s been this sort of gang culture that’s emerged among most immigrant groups.”
Police aren’t sure what has caused the recent violence. Detectives said they aren’t aware of brewing rivalries between Cambodian gangs and other gangs in Long Beach, LeBaron said. But police say it’s unusual for so many Cambodians to be shot in such a short period.
There have been 32 gang-related shootings in Long Beach since Oct. 19, the day the first two Cambodian victims, U.S. Marine Sok Khak Ung and his friend Vouthy Tho, were gunned down.
Police don’t believe the two were in a gang, but might have been targeted because they were freestyle rapping when they were shot, a common pastime among gang members.
Cambodian community leaders say stark differences between rural Cambodia and the streets of Long Beach contribute to the divide between the parents and their children.
“In Cambodia, there’s one school, one pagoda. There’s no bad element to talk about, no stressful life to talk about,” said Him Chhim, executive director of the Cambodian Association of America, who fled Cambodia nearly 30 years ago. “From the basic needs of life to the huge, materialistic life of Long Beach, there is a huge difference.”
Mike Bunthung, father of Woodtee Bunthung, said that when he learned of his son’s gang activity his first impulse was to beat him. That would have been common in Cambodia, he said.
But he soon realized that U.S. law was strict about corporal punishment and he became afraid to discipline his son.
“In Cambodia we say if you love your kid, you have to make him hurt to help. If they changed the law, all these kids would not be like that,” Mike Bunthung said. “It’s how I was raised.”
Chhim said police haven’t tried hard enough to reach out to the Cambodian population.
Roughly 10 percent of the city’s population is Cambodian-American, and about half the adults don’t speak English. About 8 percent of the force’s 890 sworn officers are Asian, but the department doesn’t keep track of how many of those are Cambodian-American.
A lack of Cambodian-speaking officers underscores the existing fear Cambodians have of authority, especially those who have lived through the massacres of the Khmer Rouge, Chhim said.
“Simply put, if a police officer does not speak the language, how can you work with the community?” he said. “If the department really wants to work with the community, they have to have more people who speak the language.”
But for the six grieving families, the pain, confusion and fear of future violence will not soon go away.
“Unless Jesus comes and blesses Long Beach real fast, we’re in trouble,” said Stevin Vandee, cousin of the most recent victim, 22-year-old Sakorn Phan. “Long Beach is a jungle for us young, Asian guys.”