Sondhi plays PAD mediator

Media tycoon Sondhi rouses anti-Thaksin sentiment and maintains peace among party members in Thailand

Bangkok Post
Thursday, March 30, 2006

On stage at the anti-Thaksin rally, media firebrand Sondhi Limthongkul delivers rousing Hyde Park-style speeches. His job is to keep fans and protesters coming back for more.

Backstage, he is a mediator for the People's Alliance for Democracy leadership, keeping the coalition from disintegrating.

Needless to say, the five PAD decision-makers do not agree with each other on everything. Joined only by the common goal of ousting caretaker Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, they are of different backgrounds.

Mr Sondhi himself is a fierce businessman who is deemed ready to collide head-on with the government. Chamlong Srimuang, the former mentor of Mr Thaksin, is a resolute, non-compromising character, often associated with the bloody uprising in May 1992. Both are deemed, to some, as hardliners.

The other three, Pibhop Dhongchai, Somsak Kosaisuk and Somkiat Pongpaiboon, are viewed as pro-democracy activists.

The first test for the PAD leadership is the call for His Majesty the King's intervention in the political situation that is believed to be heading for a dead end after Sunday's elections.

While Mr Sondhi and Maj-Gen Chamlong are totally in support of the call for a royally-bestowed government through Article 7 of the constitution, the three other leaders are reluctant to pursue a path that is said to affect the integrity of the constitution.

A call made to respected social critic Prawase Wasi, who has reportedly thrown his weight behind the use of Article 7, has made Mr Sondhi's job a bit easier.

The latest challenge is the shift of the protest venue from Makkhawan Rangsan Bridge to Siam Paragon, the country's latest shopping sensation.

The idea was floated by Maj-Gen Chamlong, who sees it as a strategic location to reach middle-high income earners. But this proposal faced opposition from the other leaders, who feared the protest would disrupt traffic and cost them the support of the very people whom they were trying to lure.

Maj-Gen Chamlong has had a tough time justifying his move and simply said it was impossible to demonstrate at Thung Kula Ronghai, a reference to a barren area.

It was Mr Sondhi who mediated in the matter, and the PAD agreed to move to Siam Paragon but cut short the number of protest days from three to two.

The Thai Rak Thai party leaders reportedly got wind of the differences in opinion among the PAD decision-makers, and tried to capitalise on this by dividing them into "hawks" and "doves".

However, the attempts have so far been ineffectual, with the PAD leaders insisting on the Ahimsa approach.

Keeping the peace is hard work

In the current political turmoil, police and security staff of private organisations have to work much harder than usual. As for the police, they have to provide security for People's Alliance for Democracy demonstrators, who have been gathering for over a month to mount pressure on caretaker Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to resign.

They have also to keep abreast with the PAD's every move and reinforcements are called whenever the alliance changes tactics.

Their main attention is to secure important state offices such as Government House, parliament and various ministries.

When the PAD announced it would move the protest venue from Sanam Luang to Government House, nearly 1,000 anti-riot police and a number of fire trucks were dispatched to that location.

The number of police was lowered to 600 after the demonstrators settled down around Government House.

The police then took turns on rotation duty.

They received three meals and a 75-baht daily subsistence pay. However, the demonstrators caused no problems at the government's power seat and instead helped look after the place.

When there were reports that the PAD planned to move the protesters to lay siege to the prime minister's residence in Soi Charan Sanitwong 69, as many as 1,500 policemen from the Border Patrol Police and anti-riot police headquarters were mobilised to guard the place.

All three entrances to Mr Thaksin's Chan Song La residence were completely sealed. Maximum security measures were taken.

Rumours also spread that the demonstrators would go separately to lay siege to the residences of all cabinet ministers to force them to withdraw support for Mr Thaksin.

All but one of of the ministers stayed calm. It was caretaker Transport Minister Pongsak Raktapongpaisal, who appeared to be most scared.

He called for nearly 100 security guards from units under the Transport Ministry such as Highway Police, the Airports of Thailand and Mass Rapid Transit Authority of Thailand, to protect him. Although the MRTA has a limited number of security personnel for the underground trains, it had to send some guards to Mr Pongsak's residence.

The PAD, however, made no such move against the residences of cabinet ministers.

Many people wondered why Mr Pongsak was so worried about security and they reached the conclusion that it was because he was responsible for many megaprojects, including Suvarnabhumi airport, causing him to feel he was in danger.

Former envoys cause a stir

The Foreign Ministry is now in a difficult situation similar to what is happening to Government House under caretaker Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

After three former ambassadors went on stage at the People's Alliance for Democracy rally and disclosed "inside information" regarding what former foreign minister Surakiart Sathirathai, currently caretaker deputy prime minister, and his boss Mr Thaksin had been doing over the past five years, the ministry under Kantathi Suphamongkhon's command appeared uncomfortable.

Earlier, a number of junior and middle-level officials wore black in a week-long silent protest against Mr Thaksin's indifference to calls for him to "make a sacrifice" and end the political turmoil.

The ministry's permanent secretary Krit Garnjana-goonchorn tried in vain to play down the mood of his subordinates, which was reported in local newspapers.

Mr Kantathi stepped out of the shadows to defend Mr Thaksin after the Jayanama brothers, Surapong and Asda, and Kasit Piromya unveiled grey actions and policies of both Mr Thaksin and Mr Surakiart at the PAD rallies.

Mr Kantathi stated clearly that Mr Thaksin had done nothing wrong.

But he did nothing to defend Mr Surakiart, and that was why the deputy prime minister had to come out to counter Mr Asda's allegations against him.

Mr Surakiart also threatened the former ambassador with a lawsuit for defaming him and tarnishing his reputation.

Mr Surakiart even said the flight of 131 Thai Muslims to Malaysia occurred during Mr Kantathi's tenure as foreign minister, not his.

Mr Krit, the permanent secretary for foreign affairs, was busy again this week.

At a weekly meeting of C10 officials or department heads, he raised for discussion the "indecent" behaviour of the three former diplomats.

He said their "disclosures" had caused confusion and hurt the ministry as well as the country internationally, especially regarding the accusation that nearly half of the Cambodian government's 251-million-baht repayment for the damaged Thai embassy in Phnom Penh was financed by the Thaksin administration.

The discussion became tense, as some officials did not agree with the idea of circulating guidelines or code of conduct for diplomats, or for the need to clarify the allegations made at the anti-Thaksin rallies by the former diplomats to 80 embassies and consulates for further dissemination.

Many wondered if the young blood in the ministry, if not "young Turks," could maintain differing views and open a new chapter by being able to more openly show their political stance and comment on what was wrong and what was right.