Thailand's Yellow Shirt Leader Says He's Broke

Thai publisher Sondhi Limthongkul, who led the People’s Alliance for Democracy – the so-called Yellow Shirts – in years of virulent and sometimes violent attempts to deny ousted Premier Thaksin Shinawatra a role in Thailand’s government, appears to be in serious financial trouble.

With Thaksin’s sister Yingluck Shinawatra now in charge of the government and running it at Thaksin’s direction from his exile home in Dubai, Sondhi’s options appear to be extremely limited. Although Thaksin remains a fugitive on corruption charges over the 2006 sale of his Shin Corp. assets to Singapore’s Temasek Holdings sovereign wealth fund, most political observers believe it is only a matter of time before he returns to Thailand.

Shortly after the July national election that brought Yingluck and the Pheu Thai Party to power, sources in Bangkok say, Thaksin sent an emissary to see Sondhi in effect to sue for peace. Sondhi, the sources said, rejected the peace overture and continued to attack Thaksin. There have been later reports, however, that the two sides have been in unspecified negotiations. There has been no confirmation of that report.

“I have heard that apparently Sondhi has run out of money,” said a well-placed Bangkok source. “I also heard that Thaksin is not going to play this game with Sondhi. But who knows what is really true? Why should he trust the serpent?”

Prachatai, the independent news website in Bangkok, reported Wednesday that ASTV, Sondhi’s satellite television station, had gone off the air Monday after a Dutch satellite operating company refused to grant any more credit. ASTV is six months behind in payments with outstanding debts of US$400,000, the website reported.

‘I can’t shoulder the burden any longer,” Prachatai quoted Sondhi as saying. “Because I have nothing. My back is broken. I said I would keep ASTV going until I drop. And that day has come.”

The 63-year-old Sondhi heads a media empire that includes the Thai language Phujatkan, or Manager Daily, as well as ASTV and the regional news website Asia Times Online, among other ventures. Ironically Thaksin saved Sondhi from financial ruin in 1997, when his businesses melted down in the Asian Financial Crisis.

Forced into bankruptcy, the publisher faced multiple investigations into his financial affairs as he juggled funds from one entity to another in an attempt to save his empire. His regional newspaper, Asia Times, was forced to shut its doors and became a website, which still operates at www.atimes.com. Employees have complained in recent weeks that salary payments have often been delayed.

When Thaksin became prime minister in 2001, he brought several of Sondhi’s allies into the government, including Viroj Nualkhair, who became the head of the state-owned Krung Thai Bank. Viroj forgave more than Bt1 billion (US$32.6 million at current exchange rates) of Sondhi’s debt, allowing the publisher to escape from bankruptcy. At that point, Sondhi called Thaksin “the best prime minister our country has ever had.” He was able to rebuild his empire.

In 2005, however, for reasons that are unclear, Thaksin fell out with Thaksin, using ASTV to attack the prime minister. He was one of the founders of the Yellow Shirts, demonstrating in the streets to attempt to oust Thaksin – a job the military did for them in a coup d’état in September 2006.

When Thaksin’s allies won the election that followed the coup, Sondhi led demonstrators into the streets again. In 2008, the Yellow Shirts occupied Government House, Thailand’s parliament, seized three airports, causing chaos for international travelers, and fomented months of violence on the streets. Eventually, after considerable more political squabbles and machinations, the army pressured enough members of parliament to switch sides that Abhisit Vejjajiva was installed as prime minister, heading the Democrat Party.

In April 2009, gunmen sprayed Sondhi's car with more than 100 bullets, wounding him in the head, which required surgery. The attackers escaped and have never been identified, although the shell casings found at the site of the shooting were identified as having been issued to a Thai army unit.

Sondhi sided closely with the royalists and was seen as an ally of Queen Sirikit. Earlier this year, prior to the election, he helped to fund more chaos including attempting to foment a war with Cambodia over the Preah Vihear Temple, a Hindu historical landmark that straddles the border between the two countries.

Despite attempts by the military and the Yellow Shirts to contain protest, violence broke out in Bangkok in May 2010, resulting in the deaths of 91 people, almost all of them demonstrators. Abhisit eventually was forced to call an election in July 2011, which the Thaksin forces won handily.

Prachathai reported that although ASTV tried to negotiate repayment of the debt at the end of this year, in addition to regular monthly fees, the company, which had recently been acquired by new owners, wanted all debts paid off at once.

‘We couldn’t. Because we have to pay our employees. And for us our employees are considered the most important,’ Sondhi said.

ASTV programs will continue to be broadcast through the internet and its 97.75MHz community radio station, Prachatai reported. Sondhi told the website that because of its independent affiliation, the satellite TV operation has received little advertising income.

“I’ve endured and struggled for over seven years,” Sondhi was quoted as saying. “But I can’t bear all this alone. I’ve had to sell personal property worth over Bt 1 billion. Some people have offered us money on condition that we change sides, but we refused.”

ASTV incurred expenses of Bt30-40 million baht a month, with royalist supporters contributing Bt3-4 million baht a month, Sondhi told the website. Chamlong Srimuang, a fellow Yellow Shirt leader, contributed the proceeds of sales of fertilizers.

“ASTV goods yield a profit of only over one million baht a month. The SMS has only about 40,000 subscribers, as opposed to the original target of 1-200,000. And there are no adverts because no one wants to place any, since this is a TV station which capitalists don’t want to support because we’re too independent.”