They don’t stand out conspicuously like other Asian immigrant groups in Los Angeles: only scattered signs over clusters of restaurants in places such as Hollywood hint at a considerable Thai population--supposedly the largest concentration of Thais outside Thailand.
Yet when federal and state officials raided a small apartment complex in El Monte this month--finding 72 undocumented Thai garment workers fenced in by razor wire and toiling in slave-like conditions--the quiet society of the Thai immigrants and naturalized citizens was thrust into the spotlight.
Shock waves from the notorious El Monte sweatshop case have forced the local Thai community into a crisis of civic identity, dividing people in sometimes bitter discord that challenges traditional values of harmony and accommodation.
Some families and friends are split over whom to sympathize with: the exploited workers or the family business that operated the unregistered factory. Older Thai immigrants look across a generational chasm and bristle at the insensitive, Americanized ways of their youths. The Thai consul general is angry over accusations that he attempted to whitewash the whole affair and encouraged the workers to waive their rights to appeal deportation.
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.
And 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 recently 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, rejected the idea that the problem might be a clash between the 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.”
People in Los Angeles County identifying themselves as Thais numbered more than 19,000 in the 1990 U.S. census, but that measure apparently does not capture many of the people of Chinese ancestry who have immigrated to the United States from their native Thailand and identify themselves as ethnic Chinese.
The Thai population has swelled since the last census, and community sources suggest that the numbers of undocumented Thai nationals in Southern California may account for about half the total population, unofficially estimated as high as 30,000 strong.
The widespread belief that there is a huge presence of Thai illegal immigrants in the Los Angeles area makes the El Monte case a touchstone for community worries about how it is perceived by the public.
“There are lot of sensitive issues involved in this,” said Phyome Phyakul, a financial analyst who serves as president of the Thai Muslim Assn., which sponsored the $500 bail for 16 of the El Monte workers.
Phyakul got involved in sponsoring and sheltering the workers at the request of Suphot Dhirakaosal, the Thai consul general in Los Angeles. The vast majority of Thais are Buddhist, but Phyakul’s group operates a small mosque in Monrovia for about 100 Thai families in Southern California of the Islamic faith.
He quietly organized a meeting with Martorell and other sponsors at the Monrovia mosque Sunday, successfully forging an agreement to cooperate on distributing donations and coordinating activities among the Thai workers, now temporarily housed at four locations.
“We don’t seek any publicity, said Phyakul, 55. “But sadly, there’s no leader in the Thai community with authority.”
Indeed, Dhirakaosal, the consul general, became a target of criticism for trying to “save face” for the Thai community--and the Thai government--by allegedly encouraging the workers to waive their rights to deportation appeal hearings. He denied that charge.
“Our duty is to protect the interests of these people,” he said. “They are scared. If they would like to go back, they should go home. I’ve told them that the [Thai] government will pay their way if they decide to go home. . . . I cannot order them to go home. I told them you need to make their own decision.”
All 72 workers were released from INS custody with six-month work permits, allowing them to remain in the United States legally long enough to serve as material witnesses in the criminal trial of their alleged captors, nine of whom have been indicted.
The furor over the El Monte sweatshop continues to cause discord and embarrassment for the Thai community at large--instead of uniting people in charity, as many Thai leaders had hoped.
One prominent member of the community said he and his brother have stopped speaking to each other because of their difference of opinion on the case.
This man is outraged about labor abuses victimizing Thai and other undocumented workers in the region’s underground economy. But his brother, he says, believes all the fuss is misguided and that everyone would benefit if things just quieted down.
“Everything is torn between two camps right now,” said the man, who asked not to be identified. “But people in the end will forgive and forget. I don’t know why. It’s the culture. There will be a healing, and I think the community will be stronger.”