Sondhi Limthongkul speaks on campus about what led to the government's overthrow by the military. The talk was sponsored by the UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies.
This article was first published in The Daily Bruin.
By Peach Indravudh, Daily Bruin senior staff
Normally he is seen on television, his voice of opposition amplified to a crowd and the words "We will fight for the king" written in Thai on his royal yellow shirt – a symbol of his political convictions. Sondhi Limthongkul has been found leading peaceful protests against the former Thai government, in February leading an estimated 100,000 people at the Royal Plaza in Bangkok, with anti-prime minister posters reading "Get out Thaksin" in the background.
And though a military coup has replaced the prime minster's government in Thailand, and these public rallies have now come to a rest, Limthongkul, a Thai journalist and UCLA alumnus, came to campus Monday to speak about the implications that led to the bloodless takeover in September and about the future political state of the country.
In mid-September, after years as the prime minister of Thailand, Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted by the military. Though his first term had been lauded by the Thai community as well as journalistic outlets, his second term abounded with speculation of corruption within the government.
Examples of this corruption included policies and legislation the prime minister would pass for personal profit, as well as limitations on the types of information news organizations would be able to report. Limthongkul said Shinawatra disrespected the role of the Thai king in the democratic, constitutional monarchy.
Though Limthongkul was not affiliated with the coup, he had been personally affected by the government when his television show was cancelled due to his criticism of the prime minister.
With Shinawatra, Limthongkul said, you were either for him or you were against him. And if you were against him, you were not allowed to speak.
"The police would take action to whoever was against Thaksin," Limthongkul said.
He recalled an event when three elderly people and a young woman were at the same mall as Shinawatra. At his sight, they began yelling, "Thaksin get out!"
And at the moment of this resistance, the police came. On the orders of the chief officer, the police began physically abusing the group, resulting in the hospitalization of one of the elderly people.
No news organizations were allowed to report on the event – except for Asia Satellite Television Network, one of Limthongkul's independently owned broadcasting companies.
Limthongkul said incidences such as this one show that the political atmosphere in Thailand at the time would have prevented a fair and accurate popular election, and that the imposition of a military coup was necessary.
Public officials were highly unethical, he said. The information the public needed to know was not getting to them because of government restrictions on the news media.
The public had been a victim of government corruption and vote-buying, he said.
There was the rural population whose vote had been bought by Shinawatra. Then there were the graduate students who had been promised 500,000 baht each if they rallied in support of the former prime minister.
But there was a time when Limthongkul supported Shinawatra.
He said he remembers having a meeting with the former prime minister a week before the first election began. Shinawatra, a successful businessman, had said, "I'm wealthy enough to where I'm not going to corrupt."
So Limthongkul supported Shinawatra during his first term. When critical questions were asked about the prime minister's administration on his television show, he emphasized Shinawatra's legitimacy to his audience.
But then Limthongkul received a letter from a viewer. The author said she had noticed problems within the government, but Limthongkul's defense was engaging and was beginning to persuade her otherwise.
"I felt abhorred by myself. And that's what changed my mind," Limthongkul said.
"But I decided to keep alive the program," he said, referring to his independent satellite television show. His crowd soon grew, from 3,000 to 10,000 and then to the 120,000 people who stood behind him in February of this year.
And thousands of miles away from Thailand, two months after the military coup, he still has a following – even if it is in a lecture room in Royce Hall.
Nusia Tunuck had seen Limthongkul's presentation the night before, at the Hollywood Park. As she bashfully put her hands over her face, she said she asked for a few hours off of work so she would have a chance to hear his presentation in English. Even after getting lost on a few buses and asking strangers for directions to UCLA, she said she was glad to have heard him speak again.
"We have things in common. We have a love for our country and we want to do the right thing," Tunuck said.
But not everyone in attendance was familiar with Limthongkul's background.
Kanit Therdsteerasukdi, a graduate student in computer science, said he had heard a lot about Limthongkul since his parents had been supporters of the journalist. He said he had been confused about how the People's Alliance for Democracy, the political party Limthongkul is affiliated with, would help impose a military coup if one of its bases had been a cleaner, fair democratic process.
After attending the event, though he said Limthongkul seemed to circumvent his question during the question and answer session, he said he became more informed about the reasons for and the necessity of the military presence in the country.
And though Limthongkul is unsure about the political future of Thailand, he said he hopes within a year the military coup will step down and the democratic process will take place through an election in Thailand.
And if not, he said he will be back on the streets protesting once more.