Thai Media Magnate Pays the Price for Backing Wrong Royalist Faction

The jailing for 20 years of media magnate and one-time Royalist Yellow Shirt leader Sondhi Limthongkul says less about his offense – creating a fraudulent report to support a loan transaction on a linked company – than it does on Thailand’s legal system.

Sondhi, once a fervent supporter of the royalist faction aligned with the now-nearly comatose Queen Sirikit, was the leader of the People’s Alliance for Democracy, which in 2008 and 2009 staged months of violent protest aimed at bringing down a surrogate government aligned with self-exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. He led thousands of protesters to shut down all three of Bangkok’s airports and to occupy the country’s parliament building.

Sondhi “was no longer useful to the royalist elite,” said a Thai political scientist. “His PAD was disorganized and lost mass support. The royalists don't trust him since he tried to bluff in public how he gained support from the palace and royalist elites.”

As with almost everything today in Thailand, Sondhi’s downfall is directly related to the coming battle for succession to the ailing King Bhumibol Adulyadej, now 88, who has been hospitalized for years and is considered to be no longer capable of effective rule. He and Queen Sirikit are occasionally trotted out in public in full regalia, both looking unable to communicate clearly.

Years of political turmoil finally brought down the last Thaksin surrogate government in 2014 when the military, led by army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha, took over in a coup that has continued to tighten political conditions in the country, with hundreds of people dragged before military courts without recourse to legal help. Hundreds more have fled the country and continued to fire at the junta, which railroaded through a constitution in August that absolves it of all guilt and gives it the right to name all succeeding governments.

The PAD was openly supported by Queen Sirikit during the violent period when Sondhi and his shock troops were attempting to bring down the government. At one point in 2009, she attended the funeral of a Yellow Shirt demonstrator killed in a clash between police and protesters. Her appearance at the funeral drew deep shock from many because both she and her husband were considered to be above politics.

According to one analysis, Sondhi and the PAD were primarily motivated by hate and fear of the coming reign of the 62-year-old Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, who is widely considered to be irrational. According to that analysis, Sirikit had given up on Vajiralongkorn and wanted to be regent herself. During that period, another political faction emerged, known as the "Dark Blue" group, described as basically opportunists who saw a chance for power by opposing Thaksin but backing the crown prince as the next monarch.

That faction opposed Prem Tinsulanonda, the 95-year-old onetime army chief who heads the Privy Council, formerly Vajiralongkorn's most formidable enemy, who sought to keep the prince from taking power. Prem has since pulled in his horns and appears resigned to the elevation of the crown prince on the king’s death.

“Sondhi was hated by the Crown Prince, and he also made the mistake of talking too much about Sirikit's support for him, which left him isolated.” Unknown forces attempted to assassinate Sondhi in 2009 when his car stopped at a filling station. The attackers shot out the tires and fired as many as 100 rounds at his car, somehow not killing him. The attackers escaped from the scene, leaving Sondhi behind with a serious head wound but conscious. He was sent for emergency surgery, where several bullet fragments were removed from his head. Sondhi’s son speculated that either a faction of the police or the military may have done the shooting.

However, according to a source with deep knowledge of the situation, the assassination was planned by Prawit Wongsuwon, now the deputy prime minister, with the crown prince’s backing. It is clear that the military has now made common cause with the Crown Prince and will back him as king despite his increasingly erratic behavior. Over the past year, they have cooperated in a series of public moves by Vajiralongkorn, including “Bike for Dad” and “Bike for Mom” bike rides in which hundreds followed the crown prince across Bangkok on bicycles. Prem himself appeared in public at one of the Bike for Dad events.

“What we see now is the junta and their dark blue cronies in politics and business trying to manage royal succession and control Vajiralongkorn,” the source told Asia Sentinel. “But the Crown Prince is clearly getting more out of control — he is killing people, tormenting (former Princess Srirasmi, whom he dumped for a Thai Airways flight attendant) and demonstrating control in other ways. Over the past two years, a number of murders of individuals in the police and army have been laid directly at the prince’s door by several witnesses.

According to a Thai banker, the army now so completely controls the country through its ersatz parliament that no movement is expected for years despite growing disgust among the elites for Vajiralongkorn’s actions. The junta and the prince’s cronies are expected to work to keep him in check while the lese-majeste law that forbids criticism of the monarchy will be used to neutralize any opposition whatsoever.

That probably ends any hope that Sondhi, the founder of Manager Media Group, is going to be on the street any time soon. The appeals court ruled that the onetime media tycoon had fraudulently guaranteed a Bt1 billion (UA$28.9 billion at current exchange rates) loan in 1997 by Manager for another company in which he held a stake.

Sondhi was rescued at the time from prosecution by Thaksin Shinawatra after he became prime minister and lived for years without having to answer for the offense. He later turned on Thaksin and led years of protest against him. The courts found that he and three other suspects had forged a report to obtain the loan without seeking approval from the Manager board of directors. The M Group, the recipient of the loan, later defaulted, forcing Manager to repay the debt.