yellow shirts see red

Sondhi Limthongkul

When people ask me about Thailand — particularly, if it is safe to visit — I tell them that the political turmoil that has plagued the country for several years has not amounted to violence.

That story has, of course, changed. A friend told me that on her way to the airport in Bangkok on Tuesday, a group of people put shopping carts in the road, blocking the taxi in front of hers. They beat the driver with wooden bats as her own taxi driver swerved out of the way. Certainly, the time of peaceful demonstration, where power changes hands in bloodless coups and elections is over.

Thailand’s protester-in-chief, Sondhi Limthongkul (above), was attacked by gunmen today. The Bangkok Post reports that the media mogul has survived the attack. He was injured by shrapnel to the head from over 100 rounds that were shot at his vehicle. Images of his injuries (left) were published in the Manager Daily, a newspaper Sondhi owns.

Sondhi is a former journalist and owner of the major media company Manager Group. Once a close friend to former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, he is now  the leader the People’s Alliance for Democracy, the principal group that staged huge protests and agitated for Thaksin’s ousting in a 2006 military coup. When Thaksin-aligned leaders were elected in 2007, Sondhi took centerstage again and led yellow-shirted protests that shut down Bangkok’s major airports. Sondhi’s agitation ended when the current Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, was apointed, but Abhisit is now the target of pro-Thaksin red shirt protests which have devolved into riots and confrontations with soldiers at Bangkok’s busiest intersections.

I interviewed Sondhi for AsiaMedia in 2006 and I can remember vividly his outspoken confidence about his place in Thai history. He used his money and influence and media company to publish boldly on Thaksin’s alleged corruption, calling his work “new time journalism” which required a certain amount of activism in the face of serious threats. From the transcript:

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.

Thailand’s army chief has said that he believes no protesters have been killed as soldiers cracked down to end the current unrest. But the state of emergency continues in Thailand and reactions to the attempt on Sondhi’s life are still coming.