A complicated man

A complicated man

And away he goes: Sondhi Limthongkul, whose life has taken many twists and turns, is taken to jail for fraud last week. (Photo by Pornprom Satrabhaya)
And away he goes: Sondhi Limthongkul, whose life has taken many twists and turns, is taken to jail for fraud last week. (Photo by Pornprom Satrabhaya)

He was no man for all seasons so much as a man of many faces.

Sondhi Limthongkul was sent to prison for fraud over a billion-baht loan. The man who overthrew governments was finally tracked down and punished as a cheat and a con and in the process, a heartless businessman who took three colleagues to prison with him.

Red shirt reaction was short, swift and accurate. Said the group's icon Jatuporn Prompan, "It has nothing to do with politics."

Right as rain. Sondhi went down for reasons prior to and really unconnected with the yellow shirts and People's Alliance for Democracy. He was already a criminal when he helped to overthrow a government by a military coup and then, by seizing the two Bangkok airports, actually overthrew another.

He and the judges didn't realise it during his 2005-2008 political heyday, but Sondhi was already bound for the pokey when he was rabble-rousing and imprudently criticising the red shirt lese majeste criminal Darunee "Da Torpedo" Charnchoensilpakul. For both of these, he may get additional sentences, but later.

He was a world-class achiever in business, media, politics, society and more -- and it's mildly possible he could be again. But the man couldn't live honestly, within his means.

The truth is that Sondhi had a black hole where most people keep their ethics.

Case in point. He bought a small newspaper and turned it into the Asian Times, sold regionally and successfully from the halcyon 1980s through the mid-1990s. This was Thailand's days of roses, garnering respect worldwide as an economic tiger, with top growth in the world at 10%-plus. Sondhi had a truly cracker-jack staff of Thais and foreigners, based in Bangkok and working the region.

In 1997, the baht and Sondhi's easy-money foreign loans collapsed. Sondhi's businesses suffered, as did many. Sondhi's staff suffered, as did many. But Sondhi did not.

Not only did he summarily gather and dismiss the staff on a black afternoon. Out of his dwindling reserves he paid them each ... nothing. "My youngest daughter was four at the time," recalled one victim last week.

But wait, there's more.

This photo, published in June, 1990, shows Sondhi the media mogul at the peak of his newspaper power (right), discussing a harsh press law known as Decree 42 and later rescinded. Other panelists and moderator, from left, Boonrak Boonkhetmala, Phetchabun MP Charas Puachuey, Manit Suksomchit, Dr Krikkiat Pipatseritham. (Bangkok Post file photo)

Sondhi's fall was different from many other businessmen. He planned it meticulously, treating employees as rubbish even as he set up funds and accounts through Hong Kong shell companies. Then he took the axe to the employees who had made him a "media mogul". Then he declared bankruptcy so they couldn't sue.

Of course cheating and literally impoverishing employees doesn't earn 20 years in the joint. Sondhi faked his paperwork, hoodwinked his directors and cheated his way to a loan of 1.078 billion baht from Krungthai Bank, and that is why the judges ordered him locked up immediately last Tuesday.

Essentially, Sondhi was unable to maintain his lifestyle and pursue his business goals -- later his societal and political goals -- on his income. So he stole.

It's certain that he met and entertained, and at one point quite handsomely enriched the future Lord Voldemort na Dubai, a man Sondhi alternately stroked and punched.

"I realised he was a free rider," he wrote in his autobiography One Must Know How to Lose Before Knowing How to Win. He told the tale of how the man from Chiang Mai bought stock in Sondhi's monopoly Nokia mobile phone shop at 10 baht, then sold it weeks later when the stock price ballooned by 2,500%.

But the book was written after the PAD was formed, after the die was cast, after the enmity was assured and after any objectivity was gone.

When the complete Book of Sondhi is written, it must examine how involved Thaksin was in Sondhi's crooked loan from Krungthai. How much the up-and-coming prime minister leaned on Krungthai to help his then-friend in 2000 is murky.

There is no mystery about 2004, when Sondhi turned completely against the Thai Rak Thai Party leader he had embraced and endorsed for the previous five years. Relatively few people knew about Sondhi prior to when the yellow shirts hit the streets to encourage the army to oust the future fugitive, which it did.

So most people know Sondhi as a rabble-rousing modern pamphleteer who turned a newspaper and TV station into shameless partisans. They strive to believe Sondhi was railroaded into jail because they forgot or never knew of the pre-2005 Sondhi, who is really the one in the clink.

Sondhi looks out from between bars today but must wonder if his many lives have run out. Probably not. There are amnesties and parole for good behaviour and, for Sondhi, no shortage of friends and frenemies who owe him. At 68 and in prison, Sondhi may have a few more surprises to spring yet.

Alan Dawson

Online Reporter / Sub-Editor

A Canadian by birth. Former Saigon's UPI bureau chief. Drafted into the American Armed Forces. He has survived eleven wars and innumerable coups. A walking encyclopedia of knowledge.

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