By Samantha Pak
Northwest Asian Weekly
Members of the local Cambodian community are making their voices heard after a series of videos were posted online showing a Buddhist nun being assaulted at a Tacoma temple.
“We are tired of being scared,” Savong Lam said during a Zoom call on Oct. 5.
While the virtual meeting was in response to the attack, which occurred last month, she was referring to the violence against the greater Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community, specifically since the beginning of the pandemic.
The call included more than 100 community members, city, state, and national lawmakers, and representatives from public and private organizations and agencies from throughout the Puget Sound region.
For Lam, a member of Tacoma’s Cambodian community who works with the Khmer Anti-Deportation Advocacy Group and Khmer Language Arts and Culture Academy, her request was simple.
“We need you to work with us.” She said this means concrete support and a commitment from leadership at different levels—from public and private agencies—to really work with the Cambodian community and provide resources to come up with long-term solutions to stop the violence against the community. Lam doesn’t know what that looks like, which is why they need to start having the conversation.
The Oct. 5 call was the start of that conversation. Sameth Mell with the Equity in Education Coalition, who facilitated the call, said they plan on holding these meetings regularly throughout the year to continue the dialogue.
Just before midnight on Sept. 21, someone called 911 about a fight at Khmer Theravadin Buddhist Temple, located on the 1400 block of East 44th Street. When officers from the Tacoma Police Department (TPD) responded, they arrested a 53-year-old woman for aggravated assault. A second suspect, a man, fled the scene before police arrived.
The victim, Houn Nguon, 68, was taken to the hospital that night for her injuries and released shortly thereafter.
Although a third individual—another woman—was possibly involved in the assault, TPD public information officer Wendy Haddow said officers only had probable cause to arrest two individuals.
“If the investigation shows there is probable cause for another to be charged, the detective will forward that to the (Pierce County) prosecutor’s office.”
It started when the suspects came onto the temple grounds, using bolt cutters to cut the lock on the gate. Nguon came out to tell them to stop in Khmer, also motioning with her hands since she does not speak English. The suspects did not stop and upon entering the parking lot, attacked Nguon. She said they hit and kicked her, pulled on her legs, and choked her. Nguon thought she was going to die and, at one point, she lost consciousness.
The first of three videos shows two assailants attacking Nguon and one of them can be heard repeatedly yelling, “Let me get her,” as well as expletives, including the F-word, B-word, and what sounds like the N-word.
Victor Tang, 80, an elder at the temple, was still onsite finishing up some work from an earlier event marking the Buddhist Hungry Ghosts Festival. Hearing Nguon’s earlier cries for help, he ran out to help and is also seen on video being assaulted, though his injuries did not require him to go to the hospital.
At one point, head monk and temple president Chea Poeuv, who recorded the videos, is heard on video repeating in Khmer, “Call the police.” He told the Northwest Asian Weekly that once he realized what was happening, he immediately thought to get it on video for evidence—especially as he thought the assailants were going to kill Nguon.
In a second video, the same vocal attacker yells, “Get the f— out of Tacoma.” The final video shows the female suspect being arrested, with Poeuv saying in Khmer, “There’s still her husband. Her husband comes and causes trouble, too.”
Last month’s assault was not the first time the temple has had issues with the suspect who was arrested.
According to Nguon and Poeuv, the suspect is one of four individuals living in rooms below the temple. They were brought in by a former temple board member, who Nguon and Poeuv said used to cause trouble as well. That board member has left the temple and they have a restraining order against him, but temple leaders have not been able to evict the four individuals.
Nguon said they have bullied, harassed, and threatened her and others at the temple. The group has also cut the locks to the temple gate some 10-20 times in the past, she said, forcing temple leaders to buy new locks each time.
Was it a hate crime?
With the rise of anti-AAPI racism and violence in the last year and a half, especially against community elders, questions have been raised about whether this recent attack is a hate crime.
Haddow said everyone involved during the night of the assault identified as Asian, adding that the suspect who was arrested told officers she needed a Vietnamese translator. However, Haddow said, just because everyone involved was Asian, doesn’t mean a hate crime has not occurred.
With the investigation ongoing, Haddow said if detectives determine a hate crime has occurred, they will forward that information to the county prosecuting attorney’s office.
Coming together as community
Once the videos of the assault were posted on Reddit on Sept. 26—by Connar Mon, a teen whose family attends the temple—it was clear to Lam that something needed to be done.
“How can we allow this to happen to our elders?” she asked.
After learning about the attack, Lam and others began organizing a town-hall-style meeting on Zoom to give the community a space to be heard and heal. That meeting was held Sept. 29 and saw about 50 attendees with just one day’s notice.
In addition to community members, elected officials that attended include Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards, City Councilmember Catherine Ushka, Pierce County Councilmember Marty Campbell, and Tacoma City Council candidate Joe Bushnell.
“This kind of behavior is not tolerated in the city of Tacoma. We’re not that city,” said Woodards.
While she didn’t have any immediate solutions, Woodards said she wanted to help temple leaders by putting them in touch with experts and attorneys who specialize in this area. She also told the Cambodian community that the city stands beside them.
Ushka and Campbell both added that a long-term solution would require everyone involved: the community, city and county council members, law enforcement at the city and county level, and more.
Silent no more
During the meeting, people asked why it’s taken so long for issues of violence within the Cambodian community to come to light, noting feelings of invisibility and being overlooked.
In response, Silong Chhun, who facilitated the Zoom meeting, said that as a community, Cambodians tend to be more passive and keep their heads down, a possible remnant of the Khmer Rouge—as speaking up during the genocide often meant death.
But Lam sees this changing, pointing out how quickly people mobilized for the Sept. 29 Zoom meeting. Everyone wants to do something, she said, and with social justice movements like #StopAAPIHate and Black Lives Matter following the murder of George Floyd, her community realizes, “We do have a voice and something can be done.”
Lam added that it’s also now up to the younger generation to get things done.
“Our elders, I think, want to support, but they need the younger folks to move the work.”
Samantha can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.