Enemies abound for firebrand Sondhi

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 April, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 April, 2009, 12:00am

Colourful at best, erratic at worst; Thai media entrepreneur, protest leader and now assassination survivor Sondhi Limthongkul has no shortage of enemies.

Top of the list would have to be Thaksin Shinawatra, the billionaire populist prime minister whom Mr Sondhi did a great deal to unseat in the early days of the political crisis now engulfing Thailand and its troubled democracy.

In late 2005 and early 2006, Mr Sondhi was driving the weekly protests against the autocratic excesses of Thaksin's five-year rule - a period that saw Thaksin dominate Thai politics like no other elected leader in the country's history.

A one-time Thaksin acolyte, he would speak with all the passion of the converted as he railed against what he saw as the cronyism and corruption of Thaksin and his Thai Rak Thai machine, drawing tens of thousands to Lumpini Park in Bangkok. The hatred for Thaksin he displayed on stage would then be propagated via his Thai-language newspaper and television station.

Businessmen with regional ambitions, they shared a common background, and Mr Sondhi was an active proponent of Thaksin's early leadership. Both are Chinese-Thai, and both are given to hailing privately the success of modern China. Their business fates differed, however, with the heavily leveraged Mr Sondhi nearly getting wiped out in the Asian financial crisis of 1997. Thaksin has traced his rival's more recent antipathy to business regulatory disputes, something Mr Sondhi has denied.

His movement grew, drawing in bigger crowds and other protest groups and leaders, and culminating in large-scale protests in Bangkok.

That force of opinion, matched by establishment unease against Thaksin, meant the military leaders who ousted him in a bloodless coup in September 2006 were initially given the benefit of the doubt, at least in Bangkok.

But three years on, Thailand is a different place, dangerously split between tensions over a government seen as illegitimate in the eyes of Thaksin's rural heartland and establishment forces who fear Thaksin is still bent on ruling Thailand for decades.

Ultimately, it could be argued the coup - Thailand's first for 15 years - has lead to bloodshed with recent protests taking a desperate, violent turn. The attempt on Mr Sondhi's life highlights just how close Thailand is to an even more bloody civil conflict.

Mr Sondhi, of course, has not rested since the coup. As Thaksin's cronies took power in the first election after the coup, he was a key player as protests morphed into the pro-establishment 'yellow shirts' - the People's Alliance for Democracy. By October of last year they were occupying Government House in Bangkok, and by December they shut down the capital's airports.

His agenda went beyond just simply Thaksin. He spoke of the need for 'guided democracy', where establishment classes of the military and bureaucrats limited the power of elected MPs.

'Political parties are being run like an investment bank,' he said during the Government House occupation. 'This kind of politics no longer works in Thailand. We need a new system.'

On another occasion, he said: 'We used to chant the mantra of elections all the time. Now elections lead to a very shabby democracy.'

A maverick, Mr Sondhi is not universally loved by the establishment. Many mainstream political figures, while opposing Thaksin, still keep their distance.

Mr Sondhi's profile had been slipping as the new anti-Thaksin coalition led by the clean-cut Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva took power. Attempting to force legitimacy through policies and sober leadership, there was little room, it seemed, for Mr Sondhi's brand of protest. Leave that up to the Thaksin side, the thinking went.

His shooting, however, puts him back front and centre. We have certainly not heard the last of Mr Sondhi, or his yellow shirts.