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Thai 'yellow shirt' protest leader survives assassination attempt

Attack on Sondhi Limthongkul could further weaken the economy and strengthen hard-liners

By Correspondent / April 17, 2009



Bangkok, Thailand

A prominent leader of a royalist protest group survived a drive-by shooting here Friday that has stoked fears of further political violence amid a military crackdown on dissent.

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Sondhi Limthongkul, an outspoken media tycoon and co-founder of the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), whose "yellow shirts" occupied Bangkok's main airport and a government compound last year, was injured in a dawn shooting at a gas station. Two other people in his vehicle were treated for gunshot wounds from what police described as a professional-style attack using automatic weapons.

The Thai government, which on Sunday deployed thousands of combat troops in Bangkok under an emergency law to put down recent street protests, arson, and rioting, said the incident may prolong the state of emergency. Authorities have detained 34 leaders of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), the "red shirts" group that led these protests, and is hunting for several others on the run.

"The situation remains fragile," Buranaj Smutharaks, a spokesman for the ruling Democrat Party, told reporters. He noted that Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's motorcade had twice been attacked by protesters during the recent turmoil. It is not clear yet who might have been behind the attack on Sondhi.

The PAD, which wears royalist yellow and is supported by Bangkok's wealthy elite, is the bitter rival of the UDD. Mr. Sondhi played no role in the latest anti-government protests. Indeed, he is loosely allied to Mr. Abhisit, who took power in December after the PAD helped topple two previous governments.

Friday's assassination attempt is likely to stir up anger between the rival camps, as well as complicate efforts by Abhisit to restore the rule of law and shore up a sinking economy. It may also strengthen the hand of civilian and military hard-liners, including those aligned to the influential monarchy.

UDD leaders have warned of an "underground movement" if the government ignores their political demands. Among these are holding fresh elections and pardoning banned politicians, including exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whom the government accuses of fomenting the recent unrest.

This nascent movement may be behind Friday's attack on Sondhi, marking an escalation of political violence in Thailand. While rowdy protests and non-lethal bombings are often used by political rivals, they usually shy away from the kind of targeted killings that plague democracies like India and Pakistan.

"This wasn't a political warning. They wanted to whack this guy. I think there's more to come," says Paul Quaglia, director of PSA Asia, a security consultancy in Bangkok.

One of the chief complaints of the red-shirted UDD has been the kid-gloves treatment by authorities of Sondhi and other PAD leaders. None has been prosecuted over last year's debilitating protests, in contrast to the current dragnet of UDD activists. Mr. Buranaj, the party spokesman, denied any favoritism.

Doctors operated Friday on Sondhi to remove shrapnel from his brain and said he was in a stable condition. His driver, however, was listed in critical condition.

Sondhi co-founded the PAD in 2006 to spearhead mass protests against Mr. Thaksin, a twice-elected populist who was eventually ousted by a military coup. Other PAD founders include a former Bangkok governor, a Democrat Party lawmaker, and a unionist.

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