In an on-camera interview with AsiaMedia, media mogul and anti-Thaksin activist Sondhi Limthongkul said corruption in Thailand has forced his news reporting into a journalism-activism hybrid.
This article was first published in AsiaMedia. Follow the links below to additional AsiaMedia coverage related to this UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies event: video, news, and an interview transcript.
Wednesday, November 22, 2006
Los Angeles --- Sondhi Limthongkul, Thai media mogul and outspoken critic of the administration of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, spoke at a crowded lecture hall at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA) on Monday. Armed with criticisms of the now-ousted regime and toting staunch views on press freedom, he explained the struggles he and his supporters faced in their fight for a change of leadership.
Sondhi is the founder and owner of Manager Group, a conglomerate of media outlets including the Manager Daily newspaper, a weekly newspaper, a monthly magazine, a community radio station and Asian Satellite TV (ASTV).
His media outlets, said Sondhi, push the envelope of journalism in Thailand. Pervasive government control and corruption, he said, make it impossible to practice traditional news reporting. He subscribes to what he called "new time journalism," a journalism-activism hybrid that calls for political change. One of the differences between Thai and American democracy, he said, is that media outlets in the United States cover a variety of political perspectives.
"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. But in Thailand, there's bloody no choice. There's only one side of the story," Sondhi told AsiaMedia.
Watch AsiaMedia's exclusive interview with Sondhi Limthongkul on Real Player or Windows Media Player (forthcoming). You can also read a full transcript of the interview.
"We are the only network which asks 'why' and once we asked a lot of 'whys,' we've been bullied," he said. "[The government] sues 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."
Sondhi has faced considerable hurdles in his business and his political crusades. He declared bankruptcy after the 1997 Asian financial crisis and Manager Group went into serious debt.
He said he learned the "hard way" by overcoming three years of bankruptcy and facing endless criticism, but he strongly believes that the people "love to hear the truth." Thaksin had destroyed the commercial viability of media outlets, Sondhi said, but ASTV fans are not easily duped by political figures' statements.
"If you don't stick to your principles, you'll be dead on arrival," he told the UCLA audience.
This year, Sondhi has faced many lawsuits, including charges of defamation and lèse majesté. In May, the Manager Daily newspaper published a series of articles claiming that Thaksin and former student leaders met in Finland in 1999 and plotted to abolish Thailand's monarchy and create a republic similar to western countries'. Thaksin and his administration vehemently denied these accusations and sued Sondhi for defamation.
Now, Manager Group faces new adversity while martial law remains in effect: "We are still the only media group defying martial law," Sondhi said.
Through new time journalism, Sondhi hopes to bring about political awareness that did not exist when Thaksin was elected to office. Thaksin, he said, took advantage of the poor who "lack a complete understanding of what politics are all about" by bribing them to vote and rally for him.
At one rally, he said pro-Thaksin supporters were each paid 500 baht. "They are paid half first, and once the rally finishes they receive another half," he told AsiaMedia. The Nation indicated that Thaksin supporters, "some of whom were said to have been paid between Bt300 and Bt500 to join the rally," were being shuttled in to a 200,000 strong Mar. 3, 2006 pro-Thaksin rally at Sanam Luang.
When asked if he is underestimating the rural poor, Sondhi said, "No, not at all. I lived there, I've been there, I fought against Thaksin and I know them all."
Thaksin's corruption has been widely recognized, but Sondhi too has his own set of critics. When he spoke at the University of Washington last week, several students protested and distributed handouts entitled "9 myths about the September 19, 2006, Coup."
Dr. Charles Keyes, a professor of anthropology and international studies at the University of Washington who attended the Washington event, argues that Thailand's rural majority have a greater understanding of politics than Sondhi gives them credit for. In Feb. 2005, Keyes conducted field research of villages in northeast Thailand. This same month, the Thai Rak Thai Party and Thaksin won with a landslide victory, winning 374 of the 500 seats in the House of Representatives while the Chart Thai Party won 26 seats and the Democratic Party of Thailand won 96 seats. His research shows, Keyes said in a phone interview, that poor people in the Maha Sarakham province could clearly differentiate between the leading Thai Rak Thai and Democratic parties' platforms.
"Thai Rak Thai won because the Democrats didn't succeed in reaching the rural people," he told AsiaMedia. "Even if they really were being bought, they really did have a sense they were voting their interests."
The idea of an uneducated rural population is a myth, Keyes said. The rural poor now have significant education to the middle school level, and many complete high school and college.
Keyes said that he respects Sondhi's courage in organizing protests against the former prime minister, but also cautions that Sondhi is very similar to Thaksin in that both use their media empires to build a following.
"Sondhi and Thaksin are two of a kind… [Sondhi] has always been manipulative in the same way Thaksin is manipulative," Keyes told AsiaMedia. "[Sondhi] is sophisticated in his use of the media, but uses it to manipulate public opinion."
Sondhi admitted to having mixed feelings about the way the coup took place and its outcome. Though he is relieved that there was no bloodshed, he lamented that the military takeover would never have had to occur if Thaksin respected the people's rights. He said that if the interim government and the military do not restore democracy and power to the people within a year as they have promised, he would protest again.
On Sunday, Sondhi held a rally at the Hollywood Park and spoke to an estimated 2,200 Thai American supporters.
In spite of whatever criticism he may receive, Sondhi's supporters who crowded the two Los Angeles venues, look to him as a courageous leader. One UCLA audience member, who said he had invested 50,000 baht to ASTV, pledged his loyalty to Sondhi. "If [Sondhi] can fight Thaksin, he can fight anybody," he said.
Additional reporting by Angilee Shah.