Who did Thai Media Baron Sondhi Offend?

Thailand’s media baron Sondhi Limthongkul, the former leader of the royalist Yellow Shirt political faction, has dared jail so many times that actually having him behind bars seems incongruous.

But the 66-year-old has indeed been languishing in a cell since Aug. 7 at the Klong Prem Central Prison in northern Bangkok. The prison is designed to hold those who have more than 15 years to serve.

What he’s doing there is a bit of a mystery, although there are also rumors in Bangkok that Suthep Thaugsuban, the southern Thai warlord who led the months of protest that disrupted Bangkok and were the pretext for the May 22 coup, could be next, a prominent Thai banker told Asia Sentinel.

Despite numerous run-ins with the law, Sondhi has always escaped imprisonment. For instance, he was sentenced to 20 years in March 2012 on charges of falsifying loan documents and for corporate fraud – the charge that caught up with him this time – but bailed himself out.

Before that, Sondhi, the head of one of Thailand’s biggest media groups, was sentenced to three years in prison for libeling his mortal enemy, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. In 2008, he was indicted on terrorism charges when his People’s Alliance for Democracy closed down three of Thailand’s most important airports, blockaded the parliament house and staged violent rallies in his attempt to bring down a surrogate government tied to Thaksin, who was ousted in a 2006 coup and ultimately fled the country ahead of corruption charges.

During that same period, Sondhi also was accused of insulting Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Sondhi skated free although lese-majeste charges have resulted in long prison sentences for many Red Shirt protesters.

“Don’t worry, he won’t go to prison,” said an individual with close ties to him in 2012. “He’s out on bail. That’s not the way they do things in Thailand.”

It’s apparently not the way they do things now under the military government that took power in the May 22 coup.

“The rule of thumb in Thailand has always been that only the poor go to jail, but Sondhi has apparently offended the military somehow, so he is even more friendless than he was when Pheu Thai was in government and Suthep took over the de facto opposition from the easier-going Abhisit,” said a former employee. “So he may set another precedent.”

Sondhi had previously been regarded as an ally of Thailand’s Queen Sirikit. However, according to an academic who didn't want his name mentioned, “The royal elite used him, but now he is of no use. He knows too much, so then must be locked up. It remains to be seen if he will be in jail for more than 30 days.”

Sondhi "has been living strictly under the rules of the prison," Department of Corrections director Witthaya Suriyawong told reporters in Bangkok. “There are no privileges for him.” He apparently is sharing a cell with other prisoners under the watchful eye of a CCTV camera in case prisoners with “different political ideas” go after him.

Sondhi and two other executives of Manager Media Group, which Sondhi founded, were declared guilty by the Court of Appeal on Aug. 7 for falsifying an internal memo that allowed the company to guarantee a Bt1.078 billion loan from Krung Thai Bank to the parent M Group.

M Group later defaulted on its loan, forcing Manager Media Group to pay back the debt. Sondhi was also accused by Thailand’s SEC of hiding the loan guarantee from the financial statement the company filed to the stock market.

“What he did was clearly criminal, using a listed company to guarantee his private debts and not disclosing the matter in the accounts of the listed company,” said the Thai banker. “His political activities against Thaksin may be praiseworthy but his private financial position had always been a big mess.”

Sondhi founded the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), which later became known as the Yellow Shirts for adopting the Thai king’s personal color as their symbol. They were soon countered by the Red Shirts of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), which represented Thaksin’s rural forces.

The SEC made the original accusations against Sondhi in a 1990 case but no action was taken, which raises the obvious question whether the publisher’s political fortunes might have had something to do with the charges. Because the case was filed well before the junta came to power, it is not regarded as a move by Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, the coup leader.

“But that said, Prayuth and Sondhi are famously at loggerheads so taking him down helps deflect criticism that the junta has only gone after reds and not yellows,” said a media source who asked not to be identified. “He was obviously too loose-lipped about where his financial support was coming from during the PAD's heyday, so he has plenty of enemies on both sides.”

After spending considerable money to fund Yellow Shirt rallies and an abortive Cambodian border squabble, Sondhi announced in October 2011 that he was broke.

Nonetheless, his media empire includes the Thai language publication Phujatkan, (Manager Daily), as well as ASTV and the regional news website Asia Times Online, among other ventures. Asia Times Online is one of the most popular news websites in Asia, with 120,000 readers but very little revenue. Staffers and freelancers report they haven’t been paid in months.

"He always seems to come up with money for bail, but paying the employees is something else," the former employee said.