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Reaction to Plight of Sweatshop Workers Opens a Rift in L.A.'s Thai Community


Reverberations from the notorious sweatshop in El Monte have thrust the local Thai community into a crisis of civic identity, dividing people in sometimes bitter discord that challenges traditional Asian values of harmony and accommodation.

Community sources say families and friends are split over whom to sympathize with in the case, after the Aug. 2 raid on the small suburban apartment complex revealed 72 undocumented Thai workers toiling behind razor wire. Many support the exploited workers; others side with the family business that operated the unregistered factory.

Older Thai immigrants are looking across a generational chasm and bristling at the insensitive, Americanized ways of activist youths in their community. The Thai consul general is angry over accusations that he attempted to whitewash the whole affair, or that he encouraged the workers to waive their rights to appeal deportation.

And some community leaders are sniping at others in an apparent contest over sharing credit for helping the victims of the tragedy.

"Now I'm the middleman, but I can't get people together at the same time," said Aroon Seeboonruang, a 83-year-old retiree and seniors tennis champion who heads the Thai Assn. of Southern California. "Some people are mad at others because they never return calls. The situation is very confusing."

At the heart of the issue, it seems, is the trauma of assimilation that is as old as the story of U.S. immigration itself. Southern California's booming Korean community faced a similar crisis after the 1992 riots that devastated hundreds of Korean business, shaking the group's collective confidence and highlighting generational rifts.

"The older generation doesn't like to show their dirty laundry in public," said Kyeyoung Park, a Korean-born anthropologist who teaches at UCLA. "The whole process of assimilation creates tension. Intergenerational conflict is a common denominator in Asian American communities."

As was the case in the Korean community, traditional Thai leaders have found themselves out of the loop, bystanders as the new generation took charge in response to the El Monte crisis.


Nobody gets more flak about this than Chanchanit Martorell, 27, executive director of the Thai Community Development Center, a nonprofit social service agency. She coordinated the coalition of civic aid lawyers, labor advocates and community volunteers who helped the Thai workers from El Monte fight deportation and bailed them out of federal custody.

But her efforts have aroused deep suspicions in the Thai community. Specifically, she has alienated some community notables by not disclosing the locations of the freed workers, which she says protects them from an intrusive media and unsympathetic fellow Thais.

"The community would like to help them, but [Martorell] is doing this all by herself without consulting us," said Rusmee Jongjarearn, director of the Thai American Citizen's Alliance. "I think it's a one-person show where she can earn all the credit for herself and her organization."

Jongjarearn, a matronly woman who declined to give her age, sponsors citizenship drives for Thai immigrants through her organization. She has not applied for naturalization herself, although she said she plans to do so soon.

She rejected the idea that her problem with Martorell might be a clash between the Asian tradition of consensus decision-making and the Western style of individualistic leadership. "This is not a cultural thing at all," she said. "This is about working together in harmony."

Martorell concedes that her actions may have bruised some people's feelings, but says she had little alternative under the pressures of getting the workers released quickly from detention.

Her critics, she said, are "basically upset because they're considered the elders in the community, and they feel we haven't included them on this. They see that as an affront. They don't understand that we needed to stay focused. There are a lot of complicated legal issues at stake, and we feel we're better in touch with the system."

The fact that Martorell is female as well as young doesn't help matters. Born in Thailand but raised and educated in the United States, she defies the patriarchal norms of her homeland.

"In Asian cultures it's not really encouraged for a young woman to take leadership," said Marcia Choo, director of the Asian Pacific American Dispute Resolution Center and a young leader in the Korean community. "A lot of people, particularly men, aren't pleased to see a young woman take on this kind of role."


The local Thai community does not stand out conspicuously like some other Asian immigrant groups in Southern California. Only scattered signs over clusters of restaurants in such places as Hollywood hint at a considerable population--supposedly the largest concentration of Thais outside Thailand.

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