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2005-11-18 08:42:00
Embassy Bangkok
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180842Z Nov 05
						C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 03 BANGKOK 007197 



E.O. 12958: DECL: 11/17/2015




Classified By: POLITICAL COUNSELOR SUSAN M. SUTTON reason 1.4 (b) (d)

1. (C) SUMMARY AND INTRODUCTION. Evidence suggests that
Prime Minister Thaksin is alienating an ever-growing segment
of the political class. The antipathy that started with NGOs
and journalists is spreading; by some accounts, it includes
many in the military leadership and reaches even to the
palace. At the same time, Thaksin's populist policies are
winning him acceptable numbers in the public opinion polls.
His nationalist rhetoric on the South makes him look strong,
(even if the government's policies are ineffective.) In any
case, his lock on the National Assembly -- 375 out of 500
seats -- hamstrings the organized political opposition, which
cannot stop the PM's legislative program. Thai Rak Thai's
(TRT) strong position in the allegedly non-partisan Senate
means that the Senate-appointed agencies that should act as a
break on the PM's power are suborned before they are even
established. What's a Thaksin opponent to do?

2. (C) The anti-Thaksin forces are reduced to hoping for
help from two extremes -- the street, and the palace. There
is some irony here: the democratic opposition and civil
society are pinning their short term hope on rather
undemocratic solutions. This fight so far is waged mostly in
arcane (to foreign observers, at least) skirmishes over the
views of elderly monks or obscure constitutional procedures.
The opposition appears to be looking for a way to provoke
Thaksin into taking one step too far in encroaching on the
prerogatives of the much-loved monarch, and provoking public
outrage in response. (Septel reports on yesterday's gag order
against one of these provocateurs.) A few others even raise
the (highly unlikely) possibility that Thaksin opponents
might arrange "an accident" to remove the PM. We believe
that Thaksin is still in a strong position, but he is
impulsive; a major misstep -- or a series of them -- would
embolden Thaksin's critics and increase his vulnerability.

3. (C) Thaksin's latest "proxy confrontation" with the
palace involves an ancient monk from northeast Thailand, and
a businessman-cum-journalist (both of whom used to be Thaksin
supporters). The monk, Luangta Maha Bua, delivered a sermon
in September that compared Thaksin to a "powerful giant with
savage power to swallow the country" that "puts its feet on
the people's heads, eating their lungs and livers." Most
seriously, he accused Thaksin and his cabinet of trying to
"swallow the country, religion and King" and "lead the
country to a presidential system." The
businessman/journalist, Sondhi Limthongkul, owner/publisher
of several Thai newspapers, printed the text of the sermon in
the news daily "Manager" on September 28. On October 11,
Thaksin filed civil and criminal libel complaints against
Sondhi, seeking 500 million baht in compensation. (Septel
reports on a subsequent 11/17 civil court "gag order" against
Sondhi.) Thaksin did not, however, sue the venerable monk,
saying that Luangta Maha Bua had helped him in the past.

4. (C) This was the second lawsuit filed against Sondhi by
the prime minister in October. On October 3, the PM filed a
suit against Sondhi following the broadcast of his popular
(and subsequently canceled) television program, "Thailand
Weekly." On that broadcast, Sondhi repeated his previous
criticism that the government had undermined the King's
prerogatives and the Sangha (the Buddhist leadership) by
controversially appointing an "acting Supreme Patriarch" in
January 2004 (allegedly to "assist" the ailing Supreme
Patriarch appointed by the Sangha and the King). Sondhi
accused Thaksin of choosing a monk who is close to his wife's
family to take this position. Sondhi then read a pointed
allegory, comparing a "good father" who raises his 60 million
children virtuously to an "eldest son" who lets the other
children be "spoiled and enslaved by wealth, headphones and
gambling." That suit also sought 500 million baht in
compensation. (Channel 9 canceled the show. Sondhi sued
Channel 9.)

5. (C) Sondhi continues to hammer on the theme of Thaksin's
purported challenge to the King. Although "Thailand Weekly"
is off the air, Sondhi continues to stage the "show" each
week before eager crowds at public venues. Last week,
thousands of people turned out in Bangkok's main park to hear
Sondhi, who wore a T-shirt with the motto, "I will fight for
the King." (Most of the government-controlled (or co-opted)
media have not given much play at all to these rallies;
Sondhi's own "Thai Day" English-language newspaper reported a
crowd of at least 10,000, but this may be inflated.) Sondhi
in the meantime continues to rack up legal problems and other
headaches. A high-ranking police official filed a
lese-majeste complaint against Sondhi on November 8, after
Sondhi's show the previous week, in which he compared the
PM's desire for a personal aircraft unfavorably to the King's
modest personal requirements. A group of lawyers called
"Lawyers Fighting for Country and King" has leapt to Sondhi's
defense in this instance, and it is not clear that this suit
actually has the backing of the PM. Also not clear is the
reason for the small explosion that occurred one night
recently in front of Sondhi's office. On November 16, the
commander of an important military unit (and a classmate of
Thaksin's from the Armed Forces Academy) turned up the heat
still further, sending Sondhi a protest letter. Maj. Gen.
Prin Suwwanadhat told the press that he and "nearly 14,000
royal guards under his command are not happy with Mr.
Sondhi's remarks about the King." On November 17, the PM got
an injunction from the civil court, requiring Sondhi to stop
all criticism of Thaksin (septel).

6. (C) In a recent conversation with Sondhi, he was upbeat
about the situation. He boasted that he'd been sued many
times, and never lost a case. He said that Thaksin was
"unbalanced" in his reaction to criticism, and that, with
this latest suit, he had gone too far. In the previous
lawsuits against the press, some other entity (Shin
Corporation, or a government ministry or agency) brought the
suit. In this case, Thaksin brought the suit himself,
claiming that Sondhi had defamed him. Therefore, according
to Sondhi, when the case comes to court (perhaps early next
year), Thaksin himself will have to testify, and explain how
he was defamed. Sondhi believes that he will then have a
chance to ask Thaksin directly the kinds of questions he has
raised in his shows and publications, and Thaksin will have
to answer under oath. Sondhi speculates that Thaksin did not
think this through before he lashed out with the lawsuits.

7. (C) The accusations against Thaksin also keep coming.
The anti-Thaksin papers have resurfaced an accusation against
Thaksin from earlier this year. In April, the PM presided
over a ceremony in the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, one of
the most sacred sites in the kingdom. The press claimed
first that no commoner had the right to preside over such a
ceremony. When the government produced a signed
authorization from the palace, Thaksin's opponents raised
further objections about the authenticity of the documents
and whether they allowed Thaksin to preside over, or just
participate in, the ceremony. This week, a retired general
sued Thaksin for lese-majeste over the incident.

8. (C) What is the point of all of this? Sondhi, a
flamboyant but appealing political gadfly, clearly relishes
his one-man crusade against the PM. He does not appear to be
working actively in concert with any of the opposition
parties or civil society groups. But he is carrying yet
further the tactic already used in the long controversy over
the Auditor-General (AG) (ref A.) In the AG case,
anti-Thaksin forces did not highlight the most obvious
accusation -- that the government's allies in the Senate were
trying to replace an active and effective official fighting
corruption. Rather, they focused on the claim that the
replacement of the AG challenged the King's authority, since
the King had appointed her. During the first phase of the
controversy, opposition politicians allowed themselves to
hope the issue would bring the students and others onto the
streets in a real challenge to the government. This was, of
course, misguided thinking and stirred up little public
enthusiasm for protest. But some Thaksin opponents continue
to think that hammering on these issues will soon provoke a
outburst from the public that could, ultimately, unseat the

9. (C) Sondhi told us he predicts Thaksin will run into
serious trouble, and that there would be violence, before the
end of the year. An associate of the Auditor General made a
similar prediction. One journalist told us he was surprised
that Thaksin dared to leave the country for so long in
September (for the UNGA and White House meeting). Several
contacts have even hinted darkly that Thaksin "might have an
accident." On top of this, some claim that Thaksin has so
alienated the military - by favoring the police over the
army, and by his bungling of the problems in the south --
that the military would not support him if there were a

10. (C) So, what does the palace really think? It's not
easy to tell what the King actually wants. It is widely
presumed among the political class that the King and his
closest councillors loathe Thaksin. However, the King
conveys his views in signs so subtle that much of the
ordinary Thai public probably misses them, even if they do
make it into a news report. For example, the King reportedly
takes care to be photographed calling on the "real" Supreme
Patriarch. The King's daughter, Princess Chulabhorn, visited
the crotchety monk in October in a ceremony broadcast on TV,
and raised money for his temple. The King's refusal to
respond to the nomination of a replacement for the Auditor
General was taken as a slap in the face to TRT and the PM,
presumed to be behind the move. The palace delayed the
approval of the military promotions list proposed in October;
because Thaksin had reportedly meddled with the list, this
delay was likewise seen as a subtle rebuke to the PM. The
King's annual birthday speech in December seems to contain
barely-veiled digs at Thaksin each year. This may not seem
like much to an outsider, and care must be taken to not read
too much into royal gestures (or lack of them). But the
King's every action is carefully scrutinized -- at least by
the political class -- and his moral authority is unequaled
among the Thai.



11. (C) Thaksin's opponents can't unseat him (at least, in
the short term) through the ballot box, so they feel they
have to try something. There isn't much hope of seriously
splintering TRT, which seems to be largely sticking by the PM
that brought them to power. It is difficult to evaluate the
hints that Thaksin "might have an accident." Violence is a
feature of political life here even today, and Thaksin has
plenty of enemies. Still this strikes us as extreme and
unlikely. The opposition parties and NGOs remember 1992, when
the power of street demonstrations, coupled with the
resulting loss of royal support, helped oust a despised PM;
those who are virulently anti-Thaksin hope such tactics might
work again. They are overestimating, in our view, the
resonance of their issues with a public more preoccupied with
economic livelihood. Even for the Thai who are aware of
tensions between the King and PM, TRT's populist programs
seem to outweigh other considerations. And so far, people
don't really have to choose between the King and the PM; they
are happy to take the government's 30 baht health scheme, its
village development fund, its million cow program and all the
rest, and then show their veneration to the King at the same
time. It is hard to see how Sondhi and the political
opposition can inflict serious political damage on Thaksin
with these current tactics. However, they are clearly set to
keep provoking the PM with accusation after accusation,
knowing that Thaksin, with his tendency to speak and act
before he thinks, is frequently his own worst enemy.