BANGKOK – December 9. This is the day of destiny when the Buddhist kingdom of Thailand will see which way the wind blows in the ongoing, no holds barred, very un-Buddhist political confrontation between former allies and best friends, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his now fierce critic, Sondhi Limthongkul, founder of Manager Media Group.
It all started with a talk show, or rather a case of the (talk) show must go on. Ever since Thailand This Week, Sondhi’s unique political talk show went mobile after being canceled by state-owned Channel 9 in mid-September, it has been relentlessly snowballing into a political protest movement.
From terrestrial to satellite, from studio to growing live audiences, first at Thammasat University and then in Lumpini park in downtown Bangkok, the mobile talk show is virtually the only outlet in Thailand for the urban masses to express political dissent. And they have adopted it with unlimited relish. Thai media have dubbed the saga “Sondhi fever,” or “the Sondhi phenomenon.”
Bring on the yellow T-shirt masses
Once again this past Friday just a man and a woman talking over a few large screens planted in a park – a political installation that would have pleased the Venice Biennale – were shaking the government tree to the core. Sondhi and his co-host, Sarocha Pornudomsak, were literally virtual. Sondhi had been to Udon Thani in northeast Thailand, meeting with revered Buddhist abbot Luangta Maha Bua – another fierce Thaksin critic – at his temple, but his return to Bangkok had been prevented by evidence of a plot to assassinate him.
According to Sondhi, “There was a conspiracy to block me from coming to the temple and to prevent me from hosting the program.” So at the last minute the 10th chapter of the mobile show was broadcast live from Udon Thani. Those not in the park followed it on Asian Satellite TV (ASTV) or over the Manager Media Group website – the most popular in the country.
Sondhi threw down the gauntlet: “On December 9, we shall retaliate. I ask that 500,000 people show up, even though Lumpini park cannot handle it.”
The live audience at the park – at least 50,000 people – was not deterred. It represented a fascinating cross-section of the capital’s middle class – high school and university students, secretaries who left work in a rush in neighboring, business-centered Silom Road and went straight to the rally, liberal professionals, entrepreneurs, senior citizens, housewives, whole families picnicking on the grass.
Most had voted for Thaksin in the past two elections. Thousands were sporting the now-trademark yellow T-shirt with the black logo “We shall fight for the King” (150 baht – less than US$4 – for the short-sleeved version). The show lasted two-and-a-half hours. During the interval – a musical/satirical interlude – crowds mobbed the stands selling T-shirts, books and video-CDs of the previous shows. When employees of Sondhi’s Manager Media Group started distributing free copies of the video-CDs, even some of the hundreds of policemen on duty snatched them.
Nobody left the park until the end. Some were there because “Sondhi is a good man.” Many were there because they were fed up with the perceived corruption and cronyism of the Thaksin administration. Unlike raucous political rallies in the West, this was a very polite audience, listening to a passionate Sondhi with almost devout attention – occasionally interrupted by bursts of laughter and applause. Ultimately, this impeccably organized electronic rally delivered what the audience wanted: more accusations of corruption and cronyism. Satisfaction guaranteed – or your yellow T-shirt back.
Sondhi came up with fresh allegations that the government mishandled Thai national lottery funds. Brandishing documents, he smashed the government’s response to another accusation lobbed in the previous show – related to Thaksin’s younger sister using a C-130 Thai Air Force transport plane to take some VIP friends for her birthday party in the northern city of Chiang Mai, Thaksin’s home town.
The crowd absolutely loved it. Once again, the thrust of Sondhi’s case is that the Thaksin administration only pays lip service to democracy, is corrupted to the core and does not deserve popular respect or support. Thus the December 9 date with destiny, in Sondhi’s own words. “I ask that 500,000 people show up on December 9, even though Lumpini park cannot handle it. We need to stand up against the abuse of state power and … redraft the constitution.”
The plot thickens
The run-up to last Friday’s show reads like a thriller. On November 17, Sondhi was slapped with a court order effectively gagging him while Thaksin’s flurry of lawsuits against him await trial. He was not deterred. The next day, on the 9th edition of the mobile talk show, Sondhi implicated Thaksin’s younger sister in the C-130 “fun flight.”
The government tried to prevent cable TV stations in Thai provinces from relaying the signal from ASTV, which broadcasts Sondhi’s show. From Chiang Mai to Phuket in the south people counteracted, getting together to watch the show on open-air projectors – provided by the provincial bureaus of Manager Media Group.
But a larger tempest was in the making – and the Thai political skies really trembled when Supreme Commander General Ruengroj Mahasaranond stepped into the fray. He warned that Sondhi should stop invoking the Thai monarchy in his criticism of the government and accused Sondhi of sabotaging national security.
Ruengroj, not by accident, is very close to the former supreme commander, who is Thaksin’s cousin Chaisit Shinawatra. People such as senator Nirun Phitakwatchara, one of the leaders of the 1973 Thai student uprising, were positively alarmed. “It’s as if we’re living in the climate of military rule decades ago,” he said. In an editorial, the English-language daily The Nation described Ruengroj as “the wrong man at the wrong place at the wrong time”.
Those with long memories readily expressed their fears of radicalization. Pithaya Wongkul, chairman of the Campaign for Popular Democracy, stressed that “the best way out is for the prime minister to dissolve the house and call for a general election to avoid bloodshed – as happened in October 14, 1973 and May 17, 1992.” Chaianant Samudvanija, director of Varijavudh College, added that “people are afraid Thaksin will have absolute control over the military, the house and even the senate.”
Thaksin chose this juncture to stage his latest coup de theater. Back from an Asia-Pacific summit in South Korea, he decided to gag himself – complaining that the printed media had “misreported” his comments on a number of issues, but more pointedly invoking that “Mercury is not in an auspicious orbit right now” and was interacting badly with his star.
What this means in practice is the cancelation of Thaksin’s weekly meet-the-press sessions until January. From now on, Thaksin’s only channel of communication with Thais is his weekly Saturday morning radio program – where his monologue does not risk being contradicted. Opposition leader Abhisit Vejjajiva did not fail to notice that Mercury would be conveniently leaving the prime minister’s orbit every Saturday.
Thaksin may have taken comfort in a poll released early last week, according to which 44% of respondents considered the Thaksin-Sondhi battle as the most serious issue facing Thai society at the moment – while only 13% believed the main problem was the government’s inability to deal with Muslims in Thailand’s deep south. But significantly, in a society deeply deferential to authority, only 12% felt it was up to the prime minister to do some explaining the multiple allegations of corruption and abuse of power.
Revered abbot Luangta Maha Bua then staged his own coup de theater, inviting Thaksin and Sondhi to his temple in Udon Thani for a frank discussion. In a remarkable scene, about 600 saffron-robed monks of the Dhamayut order – the so-called “forest monks” – traveled more than six hours overnight by bus and arrived early morning at the Manager Media Group’s offices in Bangkok, sitting down at the garden in the lotus position and delivering the abbot’s invitation.
Sondhi duly accepted it. Thaksin refused – not publicly because after all he had gagged himself, but via a government spokesman who mentioned a tight schedule. A Thai Rak Thai parliamentarian, Kuthep Saikrachang, expressed what the party really thought about all this, warning that Buddhist monks should remain neutral and not meddle in politics.
Meanwhile, calls were mounting for a review of the 1997 constitution. According to Amorn Chadrasomboon, one of Thailand’s top legal experts, the current constitutional provisions do not prevent politicians in power from abusing state-owned property. So he advocates the interference of revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej to help amend the constitution. “Why do we need to seek help from the king? Because we are sinking beneath the earth and we must hold fast, or else heaven and earth shall be separated”. This was a reference to a strong tradition in countries such as Thailand according to which the king represents heaven and the people represent the earth.
Somewhere between heaven and earth, Thaksin felt compelled to reassure his cabinet he was not contemplating early retirement. “I confirm that I will not dissolve parliament or resign because nothing will disrupt [this administration’s work] before the election scheduled for April 2009.” By mid-week, Bangkok was rife with rumors of a coup (Thailand had 17 coups in 59 years, but none in the past 14).
The financial markets panicked. Interestingly enough, it was not Sondhi, the opposition Democrats or anyone else who evoked the possibility of a coup, but Deputy Transport Minister and Thaksin ally, Phumtham Wechayachai. Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University, helped put things in perspective. “Given the military support for Thaksin, any coup is likely to reinforce the incumbent rather than get rid of him.”
Thaksin then deployed the other half of his silent strategy, as his lawyer Thana Benjatikul duly filed a sixth lawsuit against Sondhi and his talk show co-host Sarocha – this one a defamation suit concerning the prime minister allegedly helping his family-owned company to buy mobile phone and Thaicom satellite concessions, as well as helping shareholders buy shares of Thai Petrochemical Industry at cheaper than normal prices.
But the pattern remained. The more lawsuits and government intimidation, the more support for Sondhi and the bigger his virtual and live audiences. The court order barring him from criticizing Thaksin was dropped. Sondhi ended last week solemnly protected by Luangta Maha Bua. The popular abbot said, “Sondhi has now become a person for the nation and if he dies then it means the death of everyone in the country as well.”
The answer is blowing in the wind
Thaksin wields money, might and raw power. Sondhi relies on moral force and the power of civil society.
An undisputed political effect of the “Sondhi phenomenon” is that even though he still controls the armed forces, the police and government bureaucracy, Thaksin’s perceived aura of invulnerability is being eroded. In Bangkok, there is a widespread perception that the government is losing its mandate. Sondhi already has a captive audience of several hundred thousand – live, via satellite or over the Internet, ready to explode into the millions. Thai Rak Thai politicians believe that Thaksin is invincible because he controls the financial spigot to rural Thailand. But rural Thailand may finally be paying attention as week after week Sondhi unleashes tales of corruption, cronyism and abuse of power.
Sondhi is now out to reshape Thai politics. It’s not what he wanted in the first place. “The government forced me into it. All I was asking for was freedom of the press. But they have tried to silence me by any means, while not giving any justification to their crooked practices.” Sondhi may not be saying anything substantially new – as Bangkok has been awash for months with tales of lack of transparency, cronyism, corruption scandals and fishy deals.
Thaksin had already polarized Thailand when Sondhi became more vocal. As analyst Thanong Khanthong put it in The Nation, “Thai businessmen in general now live in a climate of fear. They don’t want to speak out for fear of losing their business through governmental retaliation.” What the “Sondhi phenomenon” has managed is to become the catalyst of all things Thaksin-adverse – or related to the prime minister’s notorious arrogance of power and his relentless drive to turn Thailand over to big business.
The government strategy for the moment seems to have evolved into a variant of “speak nothing and carry a big stick” (Thaksin’s self-imposed gag order plus the avalanche of lawsuits). Still, unsatisfactory explanations are now carried out by cronies with varying degrees of credibility. It’s not working because Sondhi comes up with fresh corruption allegations every week. A fascinating parallel may be drawn with President George W Bush. Like the American president, the prime minister is fast losing his “political capital”. Call it the curse of the second term. Perhaps taking a cue from Bush, Thaksin has set up his own rapid response team, led by minister Phumtham – the same one who spread the rumor of a military coup.
Sondhi said he’s aware there will be numerous attempts to discredit him. “But I learned something from all this. If you believe in what you’re doing, go for it. Even if they are playing dirty tricks against you.” He recalls he started thinking critically about Thaksin in power as early as August 2004, after “many sleepless nights” reflecting on questions of legitimacy. He rules out any possibility of a “deal” with Thaksin – a possibility branded by some analysts in the Thai media. His demands today are quite specific – and he’s aware they have no precedent in Thai history.
The 1997 constitution must be rewritten, and a petition to this effect will be drafted requesting the intervention of the king – who is traditionally above politics. Will it work? “I don’t know. But we must try,” Sondhi said.
Anything could happen on December 9 – or even before. The king’s birthday is on December 5. If hundreds of thousands of people show up in Lumpini park four days later, and the “Sondhi phenomenon” is unmistakably translated into a mass political movement, there’s every possibility the crowds will demand that the constitution – which, until a year ago, was dubbed the “people’s constitution” – be rewritten. It’s fair to argue there would be no other way out for Thaksin than to agree.
Neither Thaksin nor Sondhi control what happens next. Thai citizens do. What if the “Sondhi phenomenon”, by the sheer force of momentum, translates into something more revolutionary – even though the conditions are not there? The consequence would be a dissolution of the house, or even Thaksin’s resignation. Talk about (talk show) people power. Is Thailand ready for it?