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Sondhi gets jail time, bailed…once boasted, washed his feet with Hun Sen blood

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Readers will be interested in a brief story at The Nation that reports the sentencing of People’s Alliance for Democracy leader Sondhi Limthongkul to jail. As usual, it isn’t that simple, for he has been bailed on appeal.

The Rayong Provincial Court reportedly sentenced Sondhi “to two years in jail for defaming General Mongkol Ampornpisit, former chairman of the TPI Polene rehabilitation committee.” He also received a fine.

The lawsuit, dating from 2007, saw Mongkol claiming that Sondhi had defamed him in a broadcast talk show on 25 May that year. The report doesn’t note that Mongkol is a former close aide to Privy Council President General Prem Tinsulanonda and a former supreme commander of the armed forces.

The short report says that the case revolved around Sondhi’s claim that “Mongkol had abused his authority to siphon money from TPI, which later changed its name to IRPC, by paying himself a huge salary as well as giving large fees to an advisory firm.” The Rayong Court decided that Sondhi was guilty and sentenced him to two years in jail, with no suspension of the term. As noted above, Sondhi has been released on bail pending his appeal.

The first point to make is that when advocates of the lese majeste law claim that it is “like the defamation law,” they can’t be believed. Sondhi gets immediate bail. Think of all the lese majeste cases where bail is refused again and again, and where sentences are regularly for 10-20 years.

On the case itself, and Sondhi’s involvement, the story is a longish one and PPT has to admit that we haven’t followed it too much. However, it is worth noting that General Prem’s associate General Mongkol was initially appointed to TPI by the Thaksin Shinawatra government. TPI was a festering sore amongst the companies that had crashed following the beginning of the 1997 economic crisis.  The Leophairatana family had refused to restructure the company as its debt mushroomed. As an incomplete Wikipedia page describes it:

When the crisis struck, it emerged that TPI owed US$3.2 billion in external debt to some four hundred creditors. In 1997, the group made exchange losses of … around 5 billion USD. All expansion plans were put on hold, and TPI entered into acrimonious negotiations with its creditors. In an attempt to retain control, Prachai [Leophairatana] put both the holding company and the cement firm, TPI Polene, into the bankruptcy court in 2000. Over the next five years, Prachai used lawsuits, political connections, public advertising, and nationalist posturing in his attempt to retain control. However, with … Thaksin Shinawatra’s term in office, …[and] a bankruptcy court ruling in 2005, the state-owned petroleum corporation PTT, became the major investor in TPI with a 30 percent stake and the family was reduced to a 15 percent minority.

Prachai also mounted media campaigns, painting himself as an injured party. General Mongkol was made head of the plan administrators charged with coming up with a debt restructuring plan for TPI. Prachai was eventually forced out and had to sell his remaining stock.

It is little wonder then, that Prachai became a solid member of the group of Sino-Thai businesspeople who opposed Thaksin and, some suggest, he became major funders to PAD. Readers might also recall that one of the cases that saw the Democrat Party get off charges that originated in the Election Commission, where Prachai and TPI Polene stood accused of an illegal transfer of funds to the Party. TPI Polene is still controlled by Prachai and his relatives (be aware that this is a large PDF, and if downloaded, read from about p. 143) and has continued to fight for it. There’s some more available on the story, indicating Prachai’s politics and his fallout with Thaksin.

Prachai has managed, despite once being Thailand’s largest debtor, kept his fortune, and is ranked 29th richest person in Thailand.

Sondhi appears to have appreciated Prachai’s support, and hence spoke for him and against General Mongkol. It should be added that the relationship between Prem and Sondhi has not been smooth, and this may be related to the Sondhi’s support of Prachai and his attack on General Mongkol. In addition, a major creditor to TPI was reportedly the Bangkok Bank, where Prem has long had connections and mutual support.

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