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    Southeast Asia
     Apr 27, 2007
Page 1 of 3
Recollections, revelations of a protest leader
By Shawn W Crispin

BANGKOK - Media tycoon Sondhi Limthongkul [1] and the massive anti-government street protests he orchestrated set the stage for last year's military ouster of Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Six months later, the outspoken Sondhi finds himself in the news again.

Last month he was sentenced by a Bangkok court to two years in prison on criminal defamation charges related to critical remarks

he made on his popular television talk show before last year's coup about a high-ranking Thai Rak Thai party official. Sondhi has appealed the decision and is currently on bail.

Meanwhile, the Thai Rak Thai-linked new satellite television station PTV is threatening to file libel charges against Sondhi for comments he made suggesting the new station's leader was involved with a petition aimed at ousting Privy Council President Prem Tinsulanonda, King Bhumibol Adulyadej's chief adviser. PTV organizers have recently tried to take a page from Sondhi's own rally playbook, but so far have been able to muster no more than 5,000 anti-government protesters.

Sondhi said during the interview that he has no immediate plans to return to the streets - neither to challenge PTV's Thai Rak Thai party representatives, nor to censure the interim government's sagging performance. Contrary to many pundits' predictions, Sondhi was not offered a position in the military-appointed administration after last year's coup. In an exclusive interview with Asia Times Online before his recent defamation conviction, he claims that as a "media man" he has no political ambitions.

He has recently locked horns with the country's new military leaders through programs aired over his satellite ASTV television station - similar, though not yet as fiery, to the programs that exposed and exploited Thaksin's political soft spots. In a wide-ranging 90-minute interview with ATol's Southeast Asia editor Shawn W Crispin, Sondhi reflected on his year of living dangerously and the country's perilous political road ahead.

Explain the situation behind last year's September 19 coup.  

There are two theories. One is that they really wanted to get rid of Thaksin. They saw Thaksin was very detrimental to Thailand, particularly to the monarchy.

Who precisely?

All of them: the military, [Privy Council president] Prem ... You have to understand Thai politics. Whether you like it or not, since 1976 you cannot analyze political events without involving the monarchy institution. That's for sure.

The involvement of the king has depended on how severe the situation was. In certain circumstances, the king sends a mild signal and things come to an end. Sometimes the king has to come out - like he did with [coup leader] General Suchinda Kraprayoon to stop the fighting [in 1992] - and send a strong signal. But whatever the case, the request for military intervention or for the king to come out has always had one prerequisite: there must be bloodshed.

That old political theory, that there must be bloodshed for the king to intervene, did not work when its purpose was to get rid of Thaksin. So that more or less upset their planned solution. I remember vividly that when there was [street protest] against Thaksin, I always had people calling me: "Khun Sondhi, could you move things a little bit forward, have a little confrontation, let us see a little blood?"

Were these military people making the calls?

[Nods]. Or [Prime Minister] Surayud Chulanont ... I said no.

So did the Privy Council play any role in organizing the protests you often led?

No, no, not at all. They wanted to kick out Thaksin but they didn't have the people behind them. That's why they mumbled and grumbled behind Thaksin's back. And as time went by, they began to see their political base waning.

Whom are we talking about precisely?

I would call them the old feudalists. The feudal elite, people like the [Kasikorn Bank founders] Lamsam family, those types. They were beginning to see their power base decline slowly. When they saw Thaksin start intervening in areas that no politician [before] dared to intervene in, which included military reshuffles, they got even more scared.

That's the reason why they had to fight back. If you recall, the palace always insisted upon who would be the next commander-in-chief of the army. They would let go of the lower-ranking commanders, let Thaksin have them. That's why the [pre-cadet] Class 10 [2] came up and Thaksin was buying time. So when [General] Pravit [Wongsuwan] retired as army commander, it became [General] Sonthi [Boonyaratklin] - although Thaksin didn't want Sonthi. It took Sonthi almost a year to reshuffle all the regiments and regional commanders to prepare for a showdown with Thaksin.

But they could not move forward because they need the man, because without him they cannot fight. Unfortunately, there was a guy named Sondhi [Limthongkul]. [It was] unfortunate for myself too. I fought Thaksin and I was able to pull up the mass, and they were excited because [the elites] never thought in their minds - and later on they admitted it - that so many people would come out. So they were both shocked and ecstatic. So, all the elites were pulling all their forces behind me.

Who exactly? Are we talking about the likes of the Lamsam family?

I would never know, I would never know. I was never contacted personally and never carried money like 10 million baht, no. But it always came in: 100,000 [about US$3,000] here, 50,000 there, 100,000 here. There were so many one hundred thousands coming in.

So you became the traditional elites' de facto spokesman?

Exactly, exactly. The situation was coordinated ... The king 

Continued 1 2

Sounding out Thaksin's rural legacy (Mar 23, '07)

Thailand's new economic logic (Feb 2, '07)

Thailand's monarch riding high (Dec 6, '06)

The search for a suitable man (Sep 28, '06)

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