THAILAND: Protest spreads to 'Manager'

Motorcyclists cause stir at Sondhi's paper in protest against media critical of Thai government

Bangkok Post
Saturday, April 1, 2006

Hundreds of motorcycle taxis briefly created havoc at the office of the Manager Group last night in what is seen as an attempt to keep up pressure on media critical of the caretaker government.

The incident happened a day after the pro-Thaksin Caravan of the Poor laid siege to the office of the Nation Group in protest against the group's daily Kom Chad Luek. Members of the press and media activists slammed the use of mob rule and demanded police and the government do their duty to maintain law and order. About 400 taxi motorcyclists in their uniform orange waistcoats gathered behind Chatuchak public park yesterday afternoon. They then rode to the national police office in Pathumwan about 3.30pm. Led by Narongsak Manee, a political canvasser for Thai Rak Thai's Sita Divari, they filed lese majeste complaints against Kom Chad Luek and media activist Sondhi Limthongkul, a vocal critic of caretaker Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. A deluge of similar complaints has been filed with police by people from other provinces.

The taxi motorcyclists at police headquarters launched verbal attacks against Mr Sondhi and the newspaper and 21 of them had their heads shaved in protest.

The procession of motorcycle taxis left the police office at 4pm and headed for the Manager Group office owned by Mr Sondhi on Phra Athit road.

At the same time, Mr Sondhi left Bangkok for Guilin, China, reportedly for a brief, unannounced break. He will return at 9pm tonight and will stage a public address in Hat Yai on Wednesday.

His departure, however, caused a stir among supporters who thought he should stay put at this politically tense juncture.

The procession of motorcyclists reached Ban Phra Athit, the office of the Manager Group, about 5pm.

A representative laid a wreath and began to shout "Sondhi, get out." In response, people inside the Manager compound turned on the controversial song Ai Na Liam, or "Square-faced Man," which pokes fun at Mr Thaksin, at high volume.

The motorcyclists then stepped up the roar of their engines. Some managed to break through a line of policemen and security guards into the compound but no violence ensued.

Motorcyclists and Manager staff threw objects at each other.

Some local residents started shouting "Thaksin, get out" to the motorcyclists. They stayed there for about 10 minutes before speeding away.

At the Thai Journalists Association (TJA), members of the press and media activists met to denounce the ongoing campaign of intimidation against the media.

The Press Council of Thailand said the pro-Thaksin Caravan of the Poor demonstrators were resorting to mob rule to force the temporary closure of the Kom Chad Luek newspaper over an alleged lese majeste remark.

The council said an agreement to suspend the newspaper's publication temporarily between the Nation Group, which owns Kom Chad Luek , and the Caravan of the Poor, was reached under duress.

It was null and void because, under the constitution, even the state had no right to close a newspaper.

"Complying to close down a newspaper, whether by its own free will or for other reasons to avoid clashes or to avoid intimidation must not be condoned," said the council yesterday.

It also demanded the government take legal action against the "mastermind and supporters" who encouraged the grassroots protesters to lay siege to the Nation Group's building and submit their demand for the temporary closure of the daily.

Banyat Tasaneeyavej, chairwoman of the press council, said the incident was press intimidation at its worst.

"In the past, the media knew who was the enemy. But this is worse than it was under military dictatorship. The enemies of the media take all forms," she said.

TJA president Pattara Khumphitak said more attempts to pressure the media to accept the election outcome are likely after the election. He urged the media to join forces to resist intimidation.

Somchai Sawaengkarn, president of the Thai Broadcast Journalists Association, said the protest at the Nation Group had been organised and would spread to other media organisations.

Ubonrat Siriyuwasak, chairwoman of the Campaign for Popular Media Reform, urged the public to protect the media because they could not depend only on the police.