presented at COTS 2008 by Alan Potkin, Ph. D. Adjunct Consultant Center for Southeast Asian Studies, NIU

At a May 2005 Lao Studies conference at Northern Illinois University, an independent researcher with the imposing Lao royal title Anouvong Setthathirath IV presented a paper. Many among the audience of Lao scholars and members of the Lao diaspora would encounter this grandiose appellation for the first time in the conference abstract volume or the title slide of the talk. And likely more than a few presumed — prematurely and largely unjustly, as it turned out — that H.M. might not be altogether credible.

The author was a Lao-American resident of the North Carolina piedmont otherwise known as Dr. Som Ock Siharath; or more commonly, Dr. Philip McRowan. Along with his wife and consort Princess Oulyvanh, also known as Mrs. Ashley McRowan, the couples’ formal and Americanized names were unfamiliar to most of the anglophone Lao diaspora. And unfamiliar too, to the globalized network of Lao scholars; of whom many were/are ethnic Lao but many more are not.

In their adopted community of Asheville, N.C., however, the McRowans were rather well-respected, personally and professionally. Although few of their neighbors and colleagues there had much inkling of their alternate personae as the pretenders to the Lao throne: vacant since the communist revolutions of the 1970s and the subsequent deaths, under circumstances still not quite clear, of the previous Lao king and crown prince; and in short order, the deaths also of all the other members of the immediate Lao royal family.

While visiting northeastern Thailand, near the end of what proved the last of their annual excursions promoting Isaan culture, the McRowan couple was shot dead on 16 January, 2006 inside the grounds of Sala Kaewkoo, aka “Wat Khaek,” in Nong Khai (not an actual monastery but an idiosyncratic “Buddha park and a well-known tourist attraction). The hit was made —in broad daylight— by what appeared to several eye-witnesses as a cooly-professional death squad; wearing nondescript long black coats but armed with the heavy, 11mm automatic pistols ordinarily used by Thai security forces.

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The McRowans were in fact the fifth and sixth US citizens similarly shot to death on the Thai side of the border during the previous several years. As the Vientiane rumor mill had it, all the others were Hmong-Americans, and without further factual basis, it was widely assumed that they were probably connected with the dead-ender Hmong armed resistance to the Lao PDR government, and therefore they had it coming. Or at least should have known that they were playing hardball.

Immediately after the McRowan killings, Pol Lt-Gen Priewphan Damapong, was dispatched from Bangkok to Nong Khai to head up the investigation. Gen. Priewphan was Thailand’s second-ranking police official, and indeed had been promoted in 2004 to head the national narcotics enforcement agency, a position which he also still held in January 2006.

About four months later, Arthit Thinchanh was apprehended in Udorn Thani and charged with the McRowan murders. At his subsequent trial there, Arthit claimed that to his certain knowledge, the contract killings in which he took part had been mobilized and paid-for by the Lao communist regime. Arthit —who admitted being the junior-most member of the hit team, but not the actual trigger man— was duly convicted of aggravated first degree murder and sentenced to death in January 2007. It was then claimed that Arthit was a “Lao refugee”, and no reference was ever made to his relationship, if any, to the Thai police. Following the burst of news reports in the Thai and the North Carolina piedmont regional press on his death sentence, Googling the several variations of Arthit’s name came up with no hits thereafter. (Online archival searches of the NY Times and the Washington Posts came up negative on every aspect of the McRowan case.)

Since 2004, however, there have been no judicially-authorized executions in Thailand (there were only three in 2003), although in the years since the death penalty went into hiatus, there have been some two to three thousand “non-judicial” or extra-legal executions of alleged drug dealers and petty criminals: presumably by death squads under state protection; insofar as there have been until now zero prosecutions, much less convictions, of the killers. Many if not most of these killings occurred on Priewphan’s watch as “drug czar” so, it would be reasonable to assume that when he was put in charge of the McRowan investigation, he was not unfamiliar with the theory and practice of extra-legal killings by immunized actors.

It might also be mentioned that Priewphan is the older brother of Khunying Pojaman Shinawatra, the wife of Thaksin Shinawatra, and thus Prime Minister Thaksin’s brother-in-law. Thaksin himself, incidentally, was a graduate of the national police academy and had risen to the rank of Pol Colonel before going into electoral politics.

Within two weeks after arriving in Nong Khai, Gen. Priwephang was quoted by the Bangkok Post as saying “a number of police officers were involved [in the McRowan assassinations, and that ] Pol Snr Sgt-Maj Thaweesak Singprasert and Pol Snr Sgt-Maj Niran Duangchansri, both of Muang district police station of Nong Khai province, were among the suspects.” The Post noted that “two 11mm guns seized from the[ir] houses have been sent for examination in Bangkok to find out if they were the weapons used in the murders,” and that “Pol Col Sommai Kongwisaisuk, deputy investigation chief of Region 4 police headquarters, has been transferred to temporary duties at Loei provincial police headquarters to facilitate the investigation.”

Neither of these two career police non-commissioned officers’ (NCOs) names produced any Google hits subsequent to the 28 January 2006 Bangkok Post article just quoted; and several recent hits on Col Sommai’s (now Pol Maj. Gen. Sommai, police chief of Buri Ram province), which certainly need to be considered hearsay, suggest both/either that he’s a courageous officer ready to let the chips fall as they may, in his investigations of local influentials. Or conversely, that in such cases he’s quite willing to let very junior subordinates be thrown to the wolves.

The Lao PDR government adamantly denied any connection to the double assassination, or to the murders in Northeastern Thailand of 17 other political opponents of the Lao regime which Arthit said his death squad had been paid to kill. The characteristic coverage of the case by Thai media, however, tended both to accept the theory that the hit was perpetrated by elements in Vientiane threatened by a monarchist challenge, while contemptibly dismissing the McRowans as fake royals and impostors. This perspective —in both its key elements— was widely shared by foreigners working in Laos (and in Thailand): almost none of whom, however, were aware of “Chao Anouvong Setthathirath IV‘s” presentation at FICLS, which had made a highly spiritualized, but otherwise not altogether implausible case legitimizing his pretendership.

Notwithstanding that, on 26 Jan 2006, another Bangkok Post article on the killings quoted Police spokesman Pol Lt-Gen Ashirawit Suphanphaesat saying that “background checks also showed Anouvong Setthathirat and his wife Oulayvanh, who were shot dead on Jan 18, were not descended from a Lao royal family.” Neither of the murdered couple were born in Thailand, so it is not clear how this conclusion could be so quickly reached.

(Ashirawat was also quoted just two days later by the Bangkok Post, speaking of a bomb attack using the military plastic explosive C4, on the Bangkok office of “Porntip Rojanasunan, acting director of the Central Institute of Forensic Science, and known to be bitterly at odds with the police over her high-profile handling of major forensic work after the tsunami. ‘If it turns out to be foul play, it would be no different from the melodramatic soap opera we watch on television,’ Pol Gen Ashirawit said. However, Khunying Porntip said the motive behind the blast was not hard to figure out. She did not elaborate.”)

Nor were they aware —as was neither almost anybody else outside of Isaan (excepting the several hundred recent FICLS participants, and a presumed handful of visitors to the website and e-Bay page, both now long-defunct, listing the disk)— of exactly what the McRowans had been doing immediately before their deaths: i.e., producing (using professional Isaan singers and technical crew) and marketing —locally and globally— a music CD in the traditional Lao-Isaan molawm style.

Entitled “Following footsteps of Phra Keo Morakot” their molawm —a didactic format somewhat analogous to the American “talking blues” genre—is devoted in its entirety to the despair of the Phrakeo Morakot, more commonly known as the Emerald Buddha, now in his 230th year of tragic Siamese captivity, and his vast longing to be restored to his proper home at the Ho Phrakeo Temple in Vientiane.

If, somehow, the Phrakeo Morakot was to be returned to Vientiane, the former Lao Lane Xang royal capital where it was sheltered within the Ho Phrakeo from ca. 1560 through 1778; then, somehow, the landscape and people(s) of Isaan itself —now comprising, respectively, about one-third of present-day Thailand’s land area and overall population— would perhaps follow in its train: an outcome undoubtedly as appalling to Thai chauvinists as it would be attractive to Lao-Isaan irredentists.

(With the thorough ruination and depopulation of Vientiane in 1827-28 CE, following the defeat of the Lao king of Lane Xang by the Siamese, Isaan was annexed to the Thai Kingdom but still retains much Lao cultural affinity.)

Another element perhaps worth mentioning is the gala events of mid-June 2006, celebrating the 60th anniversary of King Bhumibol acceding to the Thai throne. Royalty from 29 countries, from Emperor Akhito of Japan down to a gaggle of minor princelings from neighboring Malaysia, were expected to participate in the grand celebrations culminating in a procession of 52 Royal Barges, rowed by 2,082 Thai naval officers.

It would be interesting to imagine how the Protocol Division of the Kingdom of Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs would have handled a request for a Royals invitation by Anouvong Sethathirath IV and Princess Oulyvanh, had the McRowans not been brutally removed from contention five months before the spectacular events. Certainly that would have complicated Lao-Thai relations, and in any case it’s not clear that the Protocol Division accepted as bona fide royals any claimants to vacant or deposed thrones anywhere. But what is also interesting is that within days after the Nong Khai assasinations, for its part the Lao PDR Ministry of Foreign Affairs also issued a press release [to be confirmed] that the pretender couple were fakes.

According to sources close to Dr. and Mrs. McRowan, a priority in their last mission to Isaan was to demonstrate that the Isaan sangha —the monastic community in the former Lao provinces of the Northeast— was well-along in accepting the legitimacy of their claim to the Lao throne. In this they seemed to have had some success, although the influence of the Isaan sangha in Bangkok (not to say in Vientiane), was likely to be slender.

On 6 January 2006 —just ten days before the McRowans were murdered in Nong Khai— the Lao PDR Ministry of Information and Culture (MoIC) formally accepted an initiative to improve the physical and intellectual infrastructure of the Ho Phrakeo Museum in Vientiane; underwritten by the Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation (AFCP), US State Department. This was the third AFCP grant in cooperation with the MoIC.

The present Ho Phrakeo vihaan, i.e., main image hall, may actually be the third such building since the original was erected in c. 1560 AD by the Lao King Sethathirath, to shelter two of the most important Buddha statues in Southeast Asia then in Settathirath’s possession; neither of which now resides in Vientiane: the Phrakeo Morakut, of course, has been in the Grand Palace in Bangkok now for nearly as long as it was in Vientiane; while the solid gold Phra Bang was eventually returned to its Lao namesake city Luang Phrabang in the mid-19th Century.

When the Phrakeo Morakot was seized —or rightfully retrieved— in 1779 by the Siamese, the Ho Phrakeo —which had housed it for the previous two centuries— was mostly destroyed. Some researchers believe that the Ho Phrakeo was totally rebuilt in ca. 1820 by the rebel king Chao Anou —no doubt intending to see the Phrakeo Morakot duly returned to Vientiane. But then less than a decade later, the new Anouvong vihaan was destroyed in turn when the Siamese razed Vientiane. By this light, the ruins sketched and photographed by Henri With the resettlement of Vientiane over the next century, and its re-establishment as the capital of the French protectorate of Laos, the Ho Phrakeo was rebuilt yet again (ca. 1938-1943), under the patronage of the Lao royal family, with the idea of it serving as a museum of religious art. At the height of the Second Indochina War, with the assistance of UNESCO a prospective floor plan was drawn, and a preliminary catalog-inventory assembled. But it wasn’t until 1979 that the Ho Phrakeo Museum was finally open to the public.

Although the collections included objects of the greatest artistic and historical significance, and quite a body of excellent iconographic scholarship was readily at hand, almost no interpretive materials had ever been developed and mounted; the illumination, security, and furnishings were substandard; and the physical conservation of the collection was derisory: even to the point of painting the Museum’s superb array of 16th century bronze Buddhas with corrosive, used motor oil to lend a temporary aesthetic sheen.

A key objective of the AFCP project was to reconcile the display and interpretation of the Museum’s exceptional collections of mostly Lao Buddhist iconography in light of the complex and ambiguous relationship between the intended museological purposes and its actual dominant function as a house of worship and an auspicious pilgrimage site for the local population, as well as for the Lao diaspora: of which the greatest portion by far lives just across the Mekong in Isaan, and which in fact holds Thai nationality.

While a systematic, high-resolution database of digital images of most of the collection, and of the exterior and interior architecture and detailing was produced and shared with the curatorial staff, none of the proposed installations —from site signage to burglar alarms— were found acceptable by the Lao side. In July 2008, the project was cancelled and the unspent funds returned to the US State Department.

The failure of the Ho Phrakeo AFCP project to be implemented may indeed have had no connection whatever to the assassinations in Nong Khai, and to the McRowan’s political and spiritual agenda for Isaan; for the present Lao PDR; and for the eventual disposition of the Pha Keo Morakot itself.

Even absent all that, it was surpassingly naive of us to “misundersestimate” the reluctance of the MoIC and the HPK curators to accept and display what amounts to a package of historiographic, iconographic, and aesthetic statements potentially inflammatory to Lao-Thai relations; yet produced according to the whims of foreigners beyond the reach of Party and Ministry discipline —and on subjects of which virtually nothing had been resolved into an accepted, correct line.