by John Boyle, and Susan Reinhardt, STAFF WRITERS
Phillip and Ashley McRowan’s many friends describe them like this: a delightful couple — charming, loving, well-educated and devoted to their Lao heritage.
The husband and wife, who lived in Fairview and maintained they were a Lao prince and princess related to a dynasty last in power in the early 19th century, seemed unlikely candidates for assassination.
Or did they?
The couple’s slaying Wednesday during a visit to a Buddhist monastery in Thailand near the Laos border raises more questions and leaves more mysteries than likely will ever be answered or solved.
Were the McRowans, who went by His Royal Highness Prince Anouvong Sethathirath IV and Princess Oulayvanh Sethathirath, truly royal? What were they trying to accomplish in Thailand and Laos? Why were they murdered? And was the hard-line communist government of Laos threatened by the couple?
Thai authorities suspect a Thai army sergeant may be involved in the murders and that the shootings may have been politically motivated, according to a report published Saturday in The Nation, a newspaper in Bangkok, Thailand. But they did not offer any further clues to his possible motivation.
Cultural champion or agitator?
The communist regime took power in Laos in 1975 at the end of “the secret war” — a spillover of the Vietnam War in the 1960s and ’70s in which thousands of Lao citizens aligned themselves with the United States and a clandestine war run largely by the CIA. Once the war ended and the communists took power, many of these American sympathizers faced severe hardship and persecution under the new government, and hundreds of thousands of them — about 10 percent of the population — left Laos as refugees, many settling in the United States.
Ashley McRowan, 38, had left Laos in 1974 and moved to Thailand. She came to North Carolina in 1984.
Phillip McRowan, 49, left his native Laos in the mid-1980s to attend medical school in Cuba, where he graduated near the top of his class. He defected to Ireland, which explains his choice of an Irish surname.
Over the years, he went by many names.
For a time, he used what court documents note as his birth name, Som-Ock Syrharath. A 1985 student ID granted in Dublin, Ireland, shows that same name, and so does a Washington state driver’s license issued in March 1992.
But that same year, in December, he got another driver’s license in Washington with the name Phillip George McRowan.
In the summer of 2003, he filed for a name change in Buncombe County Superior Court. He asked for, and was granted, the name Anouvong Sethathirath IV.
He married Ashley in 1987, after living two years in the United States. The mailbox outside their Fairview home reads: Syrharath McRowan.
While many friends and associates say the pair was interested only in cultural issues, others note that Phillip McRowan in particular was known to speak out against the hard-line communist regime, the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party, that runs Laos.
“There’s a consensus among many of the Laotian pro-democracy and human rights groups that indeed this was an assassination,” said Philip Smith, executive director of the Center for Public Policy Analysis, a nonprofit think tank in Washington, D.C., with a focus on national security and foreign policy. “There’s been a string of these sorts of attacks and murders of religious and political dissidents in Thailand in the last several years.”
But John Hartmann, a professor of the Thai language at Northern Illinois University’s Southeast Asian Studies Center, says the McRowans never intimated to him any intent to restore the monarchy to Laos. Phillip McRowan, 49, was born in Laos, while Ashley, 38, was born in Laos and moved to Thailand as a young girl. Both were U.S. citizens and had lived in Fairview for the last decade.
He was a pathologist’s assistant at Mission Hospitals, and Ashley had volunteered at the hospital and was a student at UNC Asheville.
Hartmann said the couple attended the First International Conference on Lao Studies at NIU last summer.
“They were a very gentle couple,” Hartmann said. “They weren’t on fire with any revolutionary fire — ‘Let’s overthrow the current regime.’ They were more interested in preserving the culture and history they knew from the older ages before the revolution.”
That jibes with what local residents say about the McRowans and their agenda.
Peg Downes, professor of literature and language at UNCA, accompanied Phillip and Ashley McRowan on at least one trip to Thailand recently. She says they were treated well and were aware of possible dangers of traveling so close to Laos.
“They knew there would be enemies in this unstable situation,” she said last week. “I know some of Phillip’s male relatives had been murdered, and that’s a reason to be nervous.”
But the couple’s will to better people’s lives overrode any fears of their own safety. The danger, the couple thought, was beginning to thaw, just as U.S. and Lao relations had begun improving.
Several people at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College and at UNCA, where Ashley had been a student, said the couple had no secret agenda or motive for going to their homeland. They simply wanted to show them the United States cared about them and their education.
“They were very clear,” Downes said, “they were not looking for a crown or to rule. They were just serious about improving education and relations.”
Dr. Linda Cornett, assistant professor of political science and director of international studies at UNCA, was Ashley’s instructor and adviser.
“They had it in their minds they could mobilize Laotians who were scattered around the world,” Cornett said. If they could get everyone working together, the lives of the Lao people would improve for the first time since the communist took over.
Fairview home was nice, but no palace
As for how the couple got their money for travels and to build their home in Fairview, there are several explanations, according to friends.
“As far as I know they were working from dollar to dollar,” Downes said. “They were trying to get something organized,” such as a nonprofit status for their group, she said. “They spent a lot of their own money on the trips.”
Downes said the university never gave the couple any money but were trying to help them with surplus books and computers.
At A-B Tech, where Ashley McRowan excelled as a student and made quick friends with everyone, president K. Ray Bailey said he was supposed to be on this ill-fated trip with the pair. He had in the past donated computers and several boxes of textbooks for their mission. But no money changed hands, he said.
Ashley was known to have her dresses custom-made at the House of Fabrics in Asheville, but friends says the couple’s home was nice but by no means over the top. It was furnished sparsely, with photos of the couple in royal wear, various Buddhist artifacts and a room with exercise equipment. It was almost a blend of East meets West.
The home, like many in the surrounding neighborhood, is currently valued in the mid-$200,000s, according to public records.
Downes said the McRowans worked for years building the home, and during dinner parties, they would discuss their labors with humor.
“Ashley brought pieces of that house up the hill or carried it all up in a truck,” Downes said. “They worked hard on it themselves and would buy books on electrical wiring or plumbing, read them, and do the work themselves.”
In Salisbury, where the McRowans were acclimated to America through the Lutheran Family Services resettlement programs, Barbara Wagoner, who worked with one of the churches, knew Phillip and his family well.
“He was very intelligent,” she said. “I knew (that) his family when (they were) in Laos were not poor people. His father was an officer in the military.”
‘Go claim Laos’
Smith, of the think tank, who is also the Washington director of the 50,000-member Lao Veterans of America, maintains that Phillip in particular was extremely disenchanted with the Lao government and wanted to see change. He said some early reports from Thailand after the murders suggesting that Phillip McRowan was interested solely in preserving the cultural heritage of the Lao people were misleading.
“Contrary to some of the reporting coming out of Bangkok, he was very outspoken,” Smith said. “He used different vehicles to get his message out.”
One of those vehicles apparently was Internet message boards. One 2003 posting purportedly written by Anouvong Sethathirath the IV and posted on a French site refers to another Lao royal, an “inactive prince,” as Anouvong calls him. Anouvong encourages him “to go claim Laos”:
“If he is courageous and smart he would just fly in there and claim Laos. He can do it tomorrow. Look at Napoleon. He walked from Italy to claim France. What French people did — they just took him back as emperor. Lao (People’s Democratic Republic, the communist regime) needs very much guidance (on) how to change and become democratic country.”
Another message board posting from 2003 again attributed to “Anouvong Sethathirath the IV” states: “The great countries of Peace and Prosperity will not go and liberate Laos!!! It is up to Lao people. So we need as much money as possible to do our own projects.”
The Nation newspaper reported “associates” of the McRowans said “the couple had been advocating a return of the monarchy to the communist-ruled country. Despite their monarchist leanings, they seemed to have maintained no close contacts with political movements or armed groups hoping to overthrow the government in Laos.”
The reporter, Supala Ganjanakhundee also notes, “The couple are not the first Lao activists to have been killed in Thailand. Several Lao dissidents have died in Thailand since late 2003, when Sisouk Sayaseng, the suspected leader of an attack on the Vang Tao checkpoint in Laos’s Champassak province in July 2000, was shot dead in Ubon Ratchathani.
“Phra Uthai Thammasopit, an elderly Buddhist monk who was a former captain in the Laotian Royal Army, was shot dead in Bangkok last October following the death of many fellow royalist military officers who fled from Laos after the communist takeover of 1975,” the report continued. “None of the cases have been solved.”
‘Not a threat to the government at all’
Anouvong is listed as a speaker at a June 13, 2003, forum hosted by the Center for Public Policy Analysis and called: “Crisis in Laos: The Lao Taliban Regime?” Smith said McRowan, or Anouvong as he called him, also lobbied congressmen not to extend normalized trade rights to Laos, which the country received in 2004. McRowan also attended another event where he confronted the Lao government over trade issues and suggested the communist regime share power, Smith said.
But Sisavath Inphachanh, first secretary with the Lao Embassy in Washington, D.C., said a Thai policeman’s claim that Lao communist party agents played a role in the couple’s death is totally false.
“It is not true, and not in the reality,” Inphachanh said in broken English. “I think before he say it, he should think about his accurate investigation. After (an) investigation, then he can say what he think and what the results are. Just to say that claim is very bad and not fair.”
Inphachanh said he understood from news reports that the McRowans claimed royal heritage, but he doubted that they would pose any threat to the Lao government.
“I heard the story about his activity (and that it) is only to promote culture — Lao culture and history and of our people of the 18th and 19th century,” Inphachanh said. “That is not a threat to the government at all, is my personal thinking.”
The McRowans had gone to Thailand in part to attend a seminar called “Restoration of Lao Culture.” They also made efforts to bolster education among the Lao population.
Although Laos has made efforts to emerge from international isolation in recent years — joining the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 1997, for instance — the country remains very repressive. A 2003 report by the U.S. Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, part of the State Department, said the “government’s human rights record remained poor, and it continued to commit serious abuses.”
The report continued:
“Citizens did not have the right to change their government. Members of the security forces abused detainees, especially those suspected of insurgent or anti-government activity. Heightened insurgent activity and the Government’s response resulted in scores of civilian casualties during the year. Prisoners were sometimes abused and tortured, and prison conditions generally were extremely harsh and life threatening. Police used arbitrary arrest, detention and surveillance. Lengthy pretrial detention and incommunicado detention were problems.”
Still an active resistance to communist regime
Today, the ethnic Hmong population in particular, many of whom emigrated to the United States, continue to offer resistance to the communist regime of Laos, both from America and in Laos. Many ethnic Lao also emigrated to America and are involved in numerous groups pushing for democracy in Laos.
Laos and Thailand are separated by the Mekong River, and the country of Laos is an artificially created land carved out by the French in the 19th century, according to Thak Chaloemtiarana, the director of the Southeast Asia Program at Cornell University. People sharing the Lao culture live on both sides of the Mekong, and that’s probably why the McRowans felt so comfortable visiting there. One Thai newspaper reported the couple were on their fifth visit to Thailand when they were killed.
Chaloemtiarana was somewhat mystified by Phillip McRowan’s claims to a royal line that lost power in 1828 — a time when the Lao Kingdom was a completely different country geographically.
“He’s claiming to something much larger than present-day Laos,” Chaloemtiarana said. “I’m not sure whose toes he’s stepping on. He’s not directly related to the current monarchy (that lost power in 1975), so it seems to me what he is trying to lay claim to is much larger than what he could ever achieve.”
The professor went on to say that, until their murders, the Fairview couple were “never on the radar” and wouldn’t have been seen as a threat to the established power system.
Combination of religion, royalty could be a threat
But Mike Cullinane, associate director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, offers a scenario in which the McRowans could be seen as threatening.
Traditionally, the monarchs of Laos and Thailand have been seen as the primary patrons of Theravada Buddhism, and most ethnic Lao people follow this religion.
“There’s an entire population that is faithful to the Buddhist religion that looks to the king,” Cullinane said. “The Lao haven’t really formed around anything other than the monarchy. And there’s been a lot of talk outside of Laos of continuing with a monarchy or a resurgence of the Lao monarchy.”
About half the population of Laos, roughly 3 million people, is ethnic Lao and Buddhist, even though the communist regime has repressed religion.
Someone claiming to be a prince probably would “not get a favorable reaction” from hard-line communists who run Laos, one of the poorer countries in the world, Cullinane said. But he added that he doubted the communist regimes in Laos and Vietnam (which borders Laos and still exerts much control over the country) “would be threatened by a group of princes saying they’re going to return and be kings of Laos.
“My guess is they would think it would be kind of silly,” he said. “But when you add religion to the monarchy, that’s a significant factor. The communists have attempted to suppress both the monarchy and religion. Within the context of Buddhism being very much alive in Laos, coupled with the monarchy, this could be a threat to the regime.”
A case for assassinating aspiring royals could emerge within a totalitarian regime such as Laos’, Cullinane said, “but the killing of them still seems pretty extreme.”
In an interview with the Citizen-Times in December, the McRowans said they were spiritual but combined elements of Buddhism and Christianity in their worship.
Grant Evans, a professor of anthropology at Hong Kong University and an expert on Laos, said the McRowan slayings struck him as quite familiar. In an e-mail interview, Evans said he now is based in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, and heard about the killings.
“Indeed, I was in Nong Khai (province, where the McRowans were killed) the day after the killing of a Hmong guy in mid-November, and this killing strikes me as similar,” Evans said.
He said he was not familiar with the McRowans and “they do not figure in my database of royal personages from Laos. In the absence of information about their parents it’s hard to say who they are.”
Because of the mystery surrounding their claim, Evans said, he doubted the communist regime would be threatened by them.
“They don’t have a legitimate claim, so they would not be threatened for this reason,” Evans said.
Regarding the royal titles, which some are disputing, Cornett, the UNCA political science teacher, said, “In the very least they thought it would command respect in building (cultural) bridges and promoting communications between Thailand and Laos and all around the world.”
By the same token, Cornett acknowledged, others might see that power as a threat — someone who wanted power for themselves.
Cornett, like everyone who knew the couple, says no matter what their titles or motives, one would be hard-pressed to find two better or more compassionate people.
Contact Boyle at 232-5847 or jboyle@CITIZEN-TIMES.com.