Restorative justice in the Cambodian community: Challenges and possibilities in practice
May 26, 2011
from the paper by Pen Khek Chear:
....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:
There was 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 social norms.
Given this example, where dialogue is indirect, it may be challenging to implement the restorative practice of circles in the Cambodian community. 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.