By Tim Johnston
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, April 17, 2009 12:47 PM
BANGKOK, April 17 -- Sondhi Limthongkul, one of Thailand's most controversial political figures, was shot and injured in an apparent assassination attempt Friday morning, raising fears that tensions in the country could again flare into violence.
Sondhi, the most prominent leader of the yellow-shirted protesters who closed down Thailand's airports late last year, was shot in his car as he was going to work. His driver was critically injured, and an aide also was shot. Police said they found 84 shell casings in the road.
A spokesman for Sondhi's political movement, the People's Alliance for Democracy, said he was hospitalized after the attack. He underwent a two-hour operation Friday morning to remove a small piece of shrapnel that had lodged in his head, but doctors said he was likely to make a full recovery.
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjaviva convened a special cabinet meeting and extended the state of emergency that was already in effect.
"We are concerned by the shooting obviously. We've got to restore order," Abhisit said. "We do not want this to be used to create a wider conflict."
Sondhi owns and runs a raft of media businesses, including two newspapers and a television station. He was once a close friend of Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister, but their relationship soured, and Sondhi organized massive demonstrations in 2006 that were instrumental in provoking the military coup that removed Thaksin from power. When Thaksin's political heirs won the 2007 elections, Sondhi's movement -- a conservative-minded alliance of urban, middle-class royalists, academics and businessmen -- returned to the streets.
Since Abhisit became prime minister last year, however, Sondhi has taken a back seat in Thai politics. He was not involved in the turmoil of the past two weeks, when tens of thousands of red-shirted protesters demanded Abhisit's resignation and the prime minister responded by declaring the state of emergency and calling out the army.
The red-shirts surrendered Tuesday, and their leaders were arrested, causing critics to accuse the government of a double standard: punishing their political opponents for street demonstrations after allowing their supporters to protest with impunity. Four months after Sondhi's movement shut down the country's airports, none of its leaders have been charged with any offenses, despite significant parallels between the two protests.
"You see how they treat the yellow-shirts and how the treat the red-shirts," Thaksin, who still commands the loyalty of many of the red-shirts, said Thursday. "For the red-shirts, they use brutal suppression."
Sondhi is despised by many of Thaksin's supporters, most of whom come from the impoverished rural heartland in the northeast of the country. They believe they have been disenfranchised by a coalition of the country's traditional ruling elite in the barracks, boardrooms and palaces of Bangkok, and that Sondhi is the most visible representative of that elite.