Thai political activist, Sondhi Limthongkul, is best known as the founder and core leader of the popular political movement known as "Yellow Shirts" also called the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD). A demagogue, an opportunist and quite a controversial figure, Mr. Sondhi is a Thai media mogul and an outspoken critic of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Actually, he played a key role in removing Thaksin from power and toppling his administration.
Sondhi Limthongkul started his career in the 1970s as a journalist, working as a reporter and managing editor for the Prachatipatai (Democracy) newspaper. After several ventures in publishing, in 1982 Sondhi founded the Manager Daily newspaper, which became his personal mouthpiece. He used the profits to build a publishing, broadcasting, and telecommunications empire. Eventually, he established a publishing house called the Manager Group, as a holding company for his media outlets including daily and weekly newspapers, a monthly magazine, a community radio station and an Asian Satellite TV (ASTV).
In early 1990s, when his Manager Media Group was booming, Sondhi poured money into ventures across Asia, from satellites and hotels to television stations, a regional newspaper, a Hong Kong based magazine and even a cement factory. He also bought several IT and telecommunications firms, including the IEC – exclusive handset distributor for Nokia phones. The major customers of IEC were the two rival mobile-phone groups Advanced Info Service (AIS), which belonged to Thaksin Shinawatra, and Total Access Communication (DTAC).
During that period, Sondhi regularly did business with Thaksin. Before taking IEC public in 1992, Sondhi sold a 17.5% company stake to Thaksin at ฿10/share. After listing, Thaksin sold IEC's shares at ฿250 each, making ฿600–700 Million from that deal. Both men enjoyed success during the boom years of the 1990s. But their fortunes diverged drastically after the government floated the Thai baht in July 1997, setting off the downward spiral that became an Asian Financial Crisis.
Thaksin's Shin Corporation came out of the crisis relatively unscathed compared to its rivals. AIS, a Shin subsidiary, quickly came to dominate the mobile-phone market. Thaksin has claimed the company was fortunate enough to hedge its foreign loans six months before the crisis. While Sondhi insists that Thaksin was tipped off to the flotation by government insiders.
In 1996, Fortune magazine had put Sondhi's assets at $600 Million (฿12 Billion). A year later, following the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997, Sondhi's empire collapsed, his satellite and publishing businesses crashed, the Manager Group was saddled with ฿20 Billion in debt and Sondhi was forced to declare himself bankrupt for three years.
When his old business pal was heading into serious politics, Sondhi used his media outlets to promote Thaksin's fledgling Thai Rak Thai party, and many Manager-linked figures took on key government roles and plum positions at state-run companies. The editor-in-chief of Sondhi's now-defunct English-language daily Asia Times, Pansak Vinyaratn, became Thaksin's chief policy adviser, while Manager co-founder Somkid Jatusripitak served as Commerce Minister in Thaksin's led government.
With the election of Thaksin Shinawatra as Prime Minister in 2001, several of Sondhi's associates became leaders in the new government. His financial adviser, Viroj Nualkhair, have became the CEO of state-owned Krung Thai Bank (KTB) and gave Sondhi close to ฿1.6 Billion in "debt forgiveness" and arranged for further rounds of forgiveness. Thus allowing Sondhi to emerge from bankruptcy and start his own TV show, 'Thailand Weekly'. Sondhi became a vocal supporter of Thaksin, calling him "the best prime minister our country has ever had."
Sondhi's public criticism or personal vendetta (according to some pundits) against Thaksin started in late 2004. Back then, Thailand's financial world was shocked by the fact that KTB under Viroj Nualkhair as the CEO incurred over ฿40 Billion in bad loans. Using all of his media outlets, Sondhi furiously defended Viroj. However, in 2005, Viroj Nualkhair was dismissed from the KTB.
Sondhi's attacks on Thaksin grew steadily throughout 2005, with weekly denunciations on his 'Thailand Weekly' TV show getting much attention. Under pressure form the Government, his TV broadcasts on Channels 11/1 and 9 were taken off the air. Subsequently, Sondhi took to the streets and started broadcasting his talk show via satellite ASTV and webcasting it on the website of one of his newspapers, doubling the number of website visitors.
In late 2005 early 2006, every Friday at Thammasat University and in Lumphini Park Sondhi hosted his outdoor talk shows about corruption of the Thai government with the slogan, "We Fight for the King". His broadcasts/protests, which later became the core of the People's Alliance for Democracy attracted many participants, with the largest one on 4 February 2006 at the Royal Plaza drawing up to 100,000 protestors. The protests were broadcast online via the 'Manager Online' website generating lots of public attention.
The PAD led by Thai activist Sondhi Limthongkul held huge rallies on the streets of Bangkok that opened the way for the military to remove Thaksin from power in a coup d'état. On 19 September 2006, Thai military led by General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, overthrew the Thaksin government, dissolved the Parliament, and abrogated the constitution. Thaksin, in the U.S. at the time, was exiled indefinitely, and several members of his Cabinet were summoned for investigation. Shortly after, Sondhi and other leaders disbanded the PAD, claiming it was no longer needed.
After a year of military rule, in which the constitution was amended to the liking of the generals, a new election was held – and won decisively by a self-declared "nominee" for Thaksin. The PAD re-emerged with the goal of bringing down the pro-Thaksin Government. Rallies and protests climaxed last summer when thousands of its members pushed past the police and occupied Prime Minister’s office – the Government House. The "Last Battle", as he called it, exposed a darker side of Mr. Sondhi.
In November 2008, the PAD occupied and paralysed Bangkok’s airports, both international and domestic, and contributed to the fall of the democratically elected pro-Thaksin Government that was replaced by one led by the opposition leader, Abhisit Vejjajiva of the Democrat Party.
Important events in 2009:
1. On 17th of April, Sondhi miraculously survived an assassination atempt. For details refer to Thai Politics Part II;
2. On 10th of September, the Criminal Court sentenced Sondhi Limthongkul to two years in jail after finding him guilty of defaming Mr. Pridiyathorn Devekula, a former deputy prime minister and finance minister (in Thaksin's administration). Sondhi was freed on bail pending an appeal;
3. On 6th of October, Sondhi was elected as the leader of the newly established New Politics Party. Other top contenders for party leadership withdrew their nominations to pave the way for Sondhi's victory.
A colorful journalist, now and again Sondhi has been criticized for having led the Thai media into disrepute. His credibility, personal and professional, is doubtful to say the least. Not once he was accused by his political foes of the long running jealousy and personal vendetta against Thaksin.