Transcript: Interview with Sondhi Limthongkul

A full transcript of AsiaMedia's Nov. 20 interview with media mogul and anti-Thaksin leader Sondhi Limthongkul

By Angilee Shah
Contributing Writer

[Editor's Note: See also a news article about Sondhi's Los Angeles rally and streaming video of this interview.]

AsiaMedia: What do you think Thai people in Los Angeles are so angry about?

Sondhi Limthongkul: They are angry about the way the former Prime Minister was running the country. Any decent Thais who come here, live here, they're accustomed to the general liberty and the basic transparent society. Although, having said that, I'm not saying that the United States society is completely transparent, but in general they can depend on the rule of laws. Although there are certain cases politically -- law does not work at all for those who have the major influence. In general I think the Thais are used to the rules of law and they have never, never witnessed any indecent action from people with a title of Mr. Thaksin, who was the prime minister. In other words, they never thought that a prime minister would actually act like this.

AM: You're talking about the rule of law and now that there has been a coup, the rule of law has been stopped also. Is a military coup better than a corrupt democracy?

SL: That is a general concept, but the reality of the matter is that the rule of law has never been in existence ever since Mr. Thaksin came in. He literally tore up the constitution ever since he installed himself in power. He used the mask of democracy, yet behind his mask he used the absolute majority which he received in Parliament. And the way that he received his absolute majority was in doubt because there is major election fraud and there's major misbehavior from the state bureaucrats helping him.

AM: Which media outlets do you own with Manager Group?

SL: We own a daily newspaper, a weekly newspaper and a monthly magazine. And we own a community radio station and we own a satellite TV network, ASTV.

The television scenario in Thailand is quite different from what you are accustomed to here in the U.S. Everybody will have to receive a permit from the government if you want to broadcast anything internally -- which means if you want to start a TV station in Thailand and directly broadcast out, you've got to receive a government license. But ASTV does not position itself as a TV broadcaster. We position ourselves as a content provider, so what we did is that we produce programs and we send it by Internet streaming to Hong Kong and we uplink to the satellite [from] Hong Kong. In that way, we are not classified as a broadcasting station. What we are arguing in the court -- which we won -- is that we are actually producing contents and the company in Hong Kong bought our content through Internet and they uplink it to the satellite. And then people with the satellite dish, they can actually pick up the signal and then receive programming or the local cable operators in each provinces, they can actually just hook up the signal from the satellite and then put into one of their programs, one of their channels. That way, we have literally close to 15 million viewers.

AM: That's a lot of influence, particularly with the website --

SL: Our website is the number one news website in Thailand. We have approximately 600,000 viewers.

AM: Do you think that all of these media did and are doing a fair job covering pre- and post-coup news?

SL: They are doing an excellent job because the pre-coup, they have asked questions why, whereas the other media do not ask why. Other media simply tell people who, what, when, where, but they never dare ask why. But we are the only network which asks why and once we asked a lot of whys, we've been bullied. We've been bullied by them, by the government. They sue us in court, they try to close down the station, they instruct the Communications Authority of Thailand which controls the Internet to have the Internet company to shut us down. They literally violate the rights of the people to know. I mean, luckily we fought them almost on a daily basis in court. We appealed to court, we would issue a habeas corpus, ask the court to put an injunction on it, until finally we won the case the in court. Now, since they cannot do anything about us, because we happened to be the only media network which dares to ask questions which other media do not dare to ask, what they did was they used the technicalities of the satellite or modern technology to disrupt the frequencies. So there were times when people who were actually subscribed to our satellite TV would receive very bad reception.

AM: Thaksin supporters, or even politicians, say that your media outlets run rumors without getting comments from politicians' offices, without naming sources or saying where the information comes from.

SL: We have asked them legitimate questions. Questions about corruption, questions about misbehaving. Questions about violating human rights. Simple questions like the mass murder of 3,000 people in the name of drug suppression. Where are the due courses of laws? These simple questions do not need any evidence. They only need answers. And they never give you any answers.

AM: Do you consider the media outlets of Manager Group to be partisan or neutral?

SL: There is no neutrality in media, my dear. It depends on where you've been taught. It all depends on what school of journalism is teaching you. But to me in that part of the world you have to do the right thing and by doing the right thing in a society where there's no freedom of expression it means that you are actually taking sides because the other side is already taking the other side. You can't go on a neutral stand. How do you go on neutral?

Let me pose you an interesting question. People ask me, did I really see what they committed, what they did? How could I say that? I ask them back, suppose you wake up tomorrow morning and there's snow on your lawn. Can you say that there was snow falling down last night? Yes, of course you could. But the point is that you didn't see it. How could you tell that the snow is falling? So it's a whole part of knowledge? We tend to look at the forest as a whole. We're not looking at the tree. The problem of this modern day media, and not only you but the rest of the world, is that we live in the real-time basis. We are accustomed to the real-time situation, without thinking back that whatever is happening today is a result of what happened yesterday is a result of what happened the day before yesterday. So to me, a good media is to look at things from a holistic point of view rather than a one-shot deal. And that's exactly what we did. We looked at the behavior of the Thaksin government and we looked at the way that they violate human rights. We look at the way that they violate freedom of speech. We look at the way that they have violated literally every major articles of the constitution. We look at the way they have become non-transparent. We look at the way that we pose them the questions that they're not answering, so we came to the conclusion.

AM: What restrictions do your media groups have now after the coup?

SL: The restrictions are martial law, but again we defy the restriction. We just keep broadcasting things that we think that are right, things that are wrong. We're telling them what went wrong, that they should correct it. We're telling them our disenchantment with what they did, what they should have done and didn't do it. And we did not reserve ourselves simply because there is martial law.

AM: So your media groups are critical of the coup?

SL: We are, we are.

AM: Have there been any repercussions?

SL: They use some verbal threats, but we just hold on to our guns.

AM: There are numerous analysts, academics even, who say that the future of the press in Thailand, maybe even in Southeast Asia in general, is in jeopardy because of the way politicians or activists own media outlets. Do you think that's true?

SL: Politicians, yes. But activists, it depends on which activists. I need some clarification on the word 'activist.'

AM: Do you consider yourself a journalist or an activist?

SL: I consider myself as a new time journalist. I am not attaching myself to the old traditional journalism school.

AM: What do you say to people who say that this new time journalism isn't really journalism?

SL: What makes them think that they are real journalism? Time changes, things change. New factors -- how do you report news in a country which is completely non-transparent, in a country where semi- or unofficial censorship happens? How do you do it? How do you get the other side of the story?

Let's say you're doing a story on corruption, all right? You're doing a story on corruption and then you pose a question to the people involved, in charge, and they deny it. They say, 'That's not true.' Are you going to believe in what they say, or are you going to go and dig in more? And once you go and dig in more, you're going to find a lot of sources. And all of those sources are scared to death. They say, 'Don't quote me.' Give me a reliable source who wants to withhold the name. Once those reliable sources who want to withhold the names happens more than two, three, four, five times, you begin to question, are they really your source? You see? So this is the dilemma.

So each society, each country has different ways of doing things. People who are actually critical of what I'm doing are getting too used the way Western media has been displayed. Right here, you can go to the computer and punch some name on it. There's some basic background or in-depth background coming up. Or you want to talk to the mayor on official record, the mayor will speak to you. But you want to talk to the mayor of Bangkok on official record, and they will say that's not true. So it literally shut the door. So you have to go on your own. When you go on your own, you are acting like Spartacus because you have to roam around with no direction. You find somebody and you talk to them, and they look around, they look up, look down.

Literally, when I fought Thaksin, my phones have been tapped. I've been using five phones. I mean, how could a prime minister tap my bloody phone? This is not happening here [in the United States]. Even though the Bush administration has asked Congress to give him the freedom to tap suspected terrorists -- even at that statute, you guys were making a hue and cry.

Look at me. My life has been threatened. There were literally assassination attempts on me. How do you explain this to some guy who is sitting by the Hudson River and writing a story? You guys are used to the rule of law. But there seems to be a rule of law, but only in names, in words, but not in action in Thailand.

AM: For an outsider looking in, it's hard to imagine how a military coup can make your life easier in that way, can make freedom of expression easier. Why not go through an impeachment? Why not wait for the next election?

SL: Very simple. For an outsider in the West, you look at election as final. But democratic process does not end with election. Democratic process has so many faces. Let's just say that in order to have election as the final result, what you require is three or four steps before you finally go to the poll.

Step number one: You require freedom of expression for the society. Number two: You require neutral bureaucrats who will not take sides, who will uphold the law. Step number three: You require an educated public. Step number four: You require respectability on human rights. Number five: Freedom of information.

These four steps are very vital before you finally go to the poll. You guys have this -- we don't. Not even one single of them. Freedom of expression -- we cannot go on the street, protest. We cannot hold a rally because they will arrest us. In fact, they did. After a rally, they issued arrest warrants on me, on the leaders.

Number two: The state apparatus is actually taking sides with the government. They prosecute me on the charges which the government has brought up us but when we filed the charge against government officials, they ignored them. They filed a lèse majesté charge against me. They take me to the police station, they fingerprint me, they gave me bail after a long, long wait, for almost the whole day. Whereas, we file a charge against the prime minister for lèse majesté charge, they put the case in the shelf and never take it up. Things like that. Now if you control the bureaucrats you control the election too, because the governor will help the existing power to win the election. The district attorney will help, the police will help. Everything is on their side. That's number two.

Number three: The people in Thailand are not as educated as the people in the much, much developed world about politics. Here people understand what Republicans are standing for, what Democrats are standing for, what Independents are standing for. Here people are rejoicing when they hear that Nancy Pelosi finally got elected and became the first woman House speaker in Congress. They understand politics -- at least, some of them. But not in Thailand.

Number four: Thailand has become a country with gross violations of human rights. There's a mass murder of 3,000 people in the name of drug suppression. Literally, over 2,000 people have been missing in the southern part of Thailand without the due course of law.

Freedom of information. Here, if you don't like Bush, you stop watching Fox News. Instead, you maybe take a look at CNN. If you hate Bush, you read The New York Times, Washington Post. If you love Bush, you read Washington Times. There are choices for you guys. But in Thailand, there's bloody no choice. There's only one side of the story. Every bloody Saturday morning the prime minister came to the radio and broadcast nationwide telling all the bullshit. What he's going to do for Thailand, what he has done, blah blah blah. And he lies day after day and the newspaper has never reported that he has lied. They were just making a joke of his lie.

This is ridiculous. It took you guys six years, it took the American public six years to know that Bush has lied about Iraq. Some of you have known it since the first year, but the American public shows that unanimous decision that Bush is lying through elections by voting the Republicans out of Congress. That's a warning to Bush. But in Thailand we don't have that because for six years you guys have been receiving news, alternative news, choices on news. And they use their brain to judge that, oh my God, Bush has lied. In the first two or three years, maybe they get too much influence by the spinning Bush has done but later on the spinning does not work any more. So they've been taking stories from The New York Times more seriously and looking back they have thought to themselves that Fox News has been lying all the time. This is not what is happening in Iraq after they're watching CNN. They make their own decision. But in Thailand we don't have that.

AM: Why should Thai people trust what the civilian leaders in charge now say?

SL: We have no choice. What do you want me to do? Go out on the street and fight again?

AM: Then how have things changed?

SL: They are giving the public a promise that within 12 month they will write a new constitution 'plucking all the loopholes' and they will give the power back to the people through elections. I'm waiting.

AM: Are you hopeful? Do you think it will happen?

SL: I don't know, I can't say. But I know for sure, if they're not giving the power back again within one year as they promise, I'll walk on the street again.

AM: Who would make a good governing body for Thailand?

SL: Can you find a good politician in the States? When you become a politician one foot is already in the dirt. For any conscientious politician, they have to keep another foot dry and clean as much as possible. For an average politician, they will get both feet dirty. I don't think I can rely on any good politicians. Politicians are basically for interests. Politicians are basically for carving the cake among themselves. What you need to do is find a system where they don't cut the cake too big for themselves. Maybe a small slice, and leave the biggest slice for the people. And that's what I'm hoping.

How do you do that? You do that by, number one, you educate the public about transparency. I want every politician to be in the spotlight. I want the light shining; I want the room to be absolutely transparent where I can spot even a single dust on the floor. I want people to stand and point out, 'Don't do this -- I can see it.'

Number two: I want basically the rules of laws that be a protective framework where the politicians would make their lives more miserable in trying to be a corrupt politician. They've got to find a very sophisticated way to corrupt, instead of the easy way they do it now.

Number three: I want the state officials, or state apparatus, to really uphold their dignity and to be the referee of the political game, instead of serving the politicians.

AM: The rural poor is still very supportive of Thaksin. If he were to come back for election, it's possible he would still win again. Do you think that the media and your media groups in particular have brought in the viewpoints of the rural poor enough and included them in the discussion enough?

SL: That is basically the heart of the matter. The rural poor in Thailand, they go where the money goes. A good example -- right after the coup a reporter of the International Herald Tribune went to the northeast and interviewed the rural poor and asked them whether they like Thaksin or not. They say they like Thaksin. The next question is, why? They say, because Thaksin give us the money. Thirdly, do you still want Thaksin to come back and become the prime minister? They say yes. Fourth question, why don't you start a rally and march and tell the military that you want Thaksin? The answer, 'I'm waiting for someone to pay me to go.'

You see, this is the whole process of public education. As long as people get paid and people can do what you want them to do as long as you pay them -- this is money politics at its worst.

AM: You're saying the rural poor have been bought?

SL: They have been bought all the time. They have been bought all the time. Take a look at our rally. There were times when we had 600,000 people. I never paid them a single baht. They brought their own food. They contribute to the fighting fund, whereas the other side during the protest -- Thaksin and his cronies -- have brought the rural poor down to show that there are rural poor who are actually supporting Thaksin. They were brought down by rented buses, thousands of them. Each of them was paid 500 baht. They pay half first, and once the rally finishes they receive another half. There's definitely evidence of this.

This is the heart of the problem. When you look at a situation, don't just look at Thaksin as a champion of the poor. I can be the champion of the poor if I start giving them the money, because they lack a complete understanding of what politics are all about. And sometimes political roots or cultural roots count too. Because people in the northeast, no matter who comes in, who goes out, who comes in again, they will only do exactly what you want them to do as long as you pay them. It doesn't have to be Thaksin. If this new military start a new program by giving them money, they will say this new military ruler is good, is better than Thaksin. Let's have him instead.

AM: You don't think you're underestimating the poor?

SL: No, not at all. I lived there, I've been there, I fought against Thaksin and I know them all.

AM: Is Thaksin facing the rule of law now?

SL: His cases are still proceeding. It takes some time for the rule of law to take effect.

AM: Do you think the rule of law will find him guilty?

SL: I certainly hope so.

AM: Let's say in one year, the country does have elections. Do you think this time around they'll be fair?

SL: At least they'll be much fairer than when Thaksin was [in office].