Woman wears red flowers to Thai ceremony, gets hundreds of death threats
By LYNDSAY WINKLEY | The San Diego Union-Tribune (Tribune News Service) | Published: November 8, 2017
Not long after she arrived to the Wat Thai Temple in Los Angeles, people started noticing the bright flowers on Rosalynn Carmen’s jacket.
“She’s wearing red!” one woman shouted.
Others who had gathered at the temple for a memorial honoring the late Thai king circled Carmen, saying her clothing was inappropriate and a sign of disrespect. The altercation would ultimately lead to hundreds of threats, including a call for the San Diego woman and her husband’s assassination.
The lingering controversy appears to be, at least in part, a reflection of Thailand’s deeply divided politics, and an example of the viral power of misinformation seen in social media communities around the world.
Online video of the incident shows that Carmen stood her ground when confronted by the crowd and initially refused to leave the temple. She said later that she felt that, as an American, it was her right to be there.
“This is my country. This is America,” she said. “I didn’t do anything wrong.”
But others who attended the ceremony said Carmen was dressed inappropriately for the event, and that the backlash could have been avoided if she had been more deferential.
After a year of national mourning, the body of Thailand’s beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej was cremated Oct. 26. It was a solemn occasion, commemorated with funereal services the world over.
Carmen hadn’t planned on attending the Los Angeles ceremony — she had paid her respects at the Royal Thai Consulate when the king died last year — but when her mother asked her and her husband, Leonard Novarro, to accompany her, she obliged.
Although she didn’t intend to enter the temple during the event, she said, she dressed in a knee-lenth black dress with straps across the chest. On her head was a frilly, black hat. She also wore a light jacket adorned with red and yellow flowers.
She was wandering the temple grounds, taking pictures when she heard the woman shout about the red accents on her clothing.
For more than a decade, Thailand’s tumultuous political stage has been dominated by two deeply divided political groups, referred to colloquially as the red shirts and the yellow shirts.
“Thai politics are completely polarized,” said Ann Marie Murphy, an associate professor at New Jersey’s Seton Hall University and an expert in Asian politics.
“This has separated family and friends just as politics in our country has.”
Central to the controversy is former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The populist leader was well-liked among the rural poor for policies — like debt forgiveness for farmers and affordable health care — that benefited them.
But Thaksin’s critics accused him of nepotism and corruption. After he was elected a second time 2005, a loose group including royalists and middle-class Bangkok residents began protesting his rule.
They staged massive demonstrations, with protesters donning yellow — the color that represents the Thai monarch.
In 2006, there was a military coup and Thaksin was ousted.
He went into exile, but his base remained loyal. His supporters elected a number of pro-Thaksin politicians to power during the next election, but they were banned after more yellow-shirt protests led to court rulings that alleged electoral misconduct.
That’s when Thaksin’s supporters, donning red shirts, began protesting.
The stage was set for a prolonged, and bloody power struggle — draped in hues of red and yellow — that continues today.
Soon after the woman’s outburst at the temple in Los Angeles, Carmen found herself surrounded by a crowd, her husband said. A security guard informed her that her outfit was inappropriate.
Part of the interaction was caught on video. The footage begins with a civil but tense conversation between Carmen and a guard. They spoke in Thai, but Jessica Ing-aram, vice president of the Thai Association of Southern California, helped translate their words for The San Diego Union-Tribune.
Carmen is heard asking if it was illegal to wear color. The guard says it wasn’t, but explains that everyone in attendance had been asked to dress a certain way, out of respect for the late king.
Carmen pushes back. She tells him that people are entitled to their own opinions and thoughts. The guard agrees but asks her to consider the occasion. He then tells her she may have been well-intentioned, but that her outfit is disrespectful.
Some in the crowd are then heard asking if anyone has a blazer Carmen could use. But she tells them she doesn’t want a jacket. She tells the crowd that in America, everyone has the freedom to be themselves. The security guards ask her again to consider the event, and what it’s for.
Soon after that, the incident becomes more heated.
Carmen and another woman trade barbed comments and the crowd begins to chant, telling her to get out. Carmen did a little dance as she walked away.
Novarro said bystanders hurled insults at Carmen. She and her family left soon afterward.
The couple founded Asian Media America and the Asian Heritage Society, a San Diego organization that celebrates Asian-Americans and their achievements. Novarro, a former journalist, was an editor at the San Diego Evening Tribune.
Ing-aram also attended the ceremony. She said, in addition to the pops of color, people’s outrage stemmed from Carmen’s dress and her attitude when confronted about it.
“The late king was the longest ruling monarch in history. ...A lot of people love his work and love him as a person,” Ing-aram said. “Naturally, at his cremation, it’s our way of showing our last respects and last love for the king. So to have someone come in who appeared to disrespect the event, and, as some saw it, disrespect the king — people aren’t going to be happy about it.”
The couple thought they had left the incident behind them, but when they returned home that day they realized that news of the altercation had spread quickly.
Hours after the event, the couple’s social media accounts were flooded with “vile” threats, Novarro said. Some of the posts had pictures of Carmen with an “X” over her face, next to images of guns. In videos posted on YouTube, some people made death threats .
The two fled their home to a second residence and tried to work with local law enforcement. Investigators are taking the case seriously, but said there was little they could, partly because many of the threats originated in Thailand, Novarro said.
The couple says their family members have also been targeted, with relatives in Thailand and New York receiving threats.
“You feel so powerless,” Novarro said. “That’s the most frustrating thing. You can’t do anything about it.”
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