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Thai Protest Leader Sondhi Given 20-Year Jail Term for Fraud

Thai protest leader Sondhi Limthongkul, whose demonstrations helped oust two governments since 2006, received a 20-year jail term for faking documents in the 1990s to secure loans for a company he controlled.

Sondhi and three other executives of Manager Media Group Pcl failed to notify its board they were signing documents to guarantee 1.08 billion baht ($35 million) in loans to privately held The M Group Pcl, according to the website of the Securities and Exchange Commission, which filed the charges. The guarantee wasn’t disclosed in financial statements, it said.

“We will appeal the court decision,” Suwat Apaiphak, a lawyer for Sondhi, told reporters at the court. Sondhi was freed on bail after posting a 10 million-baht bond, Suwat said.

Sondhi, a journalist-turned-media-tycoon, spearheaded protests against former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra before his ouster in a 2006 coup and helped remove the exiled leader’s allies from power in 2008 by seizing Bangkok’s airports. His People’s Alliance for Democracy plans to meet on March 10 to consider a protest against Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister, who took power six months ago.

Two of Sondhi’s associates also received 20-year sentences and a third person was given a 2.5-year jail term for their roles in deceiving state-controlled Krung Thai Bank Pcl, the court said. The M Group defaulted on the 259 million-baht debt, leaving Manager Media responsible for paying the loan, it said.

Publishing Empire

Born in Bangkok, Sondhi studied history at the University of California, Los Angeles before returning to Thailand to edit a newspaper called Democracy. It became part of a successful mass movement against the then-military government in 1973.

In the 1990s he built Manager Media into one of Thailand’s largest publishing and communications companies, with operations in Hong Kong and Singapore and ventures in satellite and phone services. At the time he became a competitor to Thaksin, who founded what became the country’s biggest mobile-phone operator.

Their fortunes diverged with the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Sondhi filed for bankruptcy after Manager racked up about $40 million in debt and its shares haven’t traded since 1998. Thaksin’s businesses thrived and he founded a political party that won elections in 2001 and 2005.

Thaksin Protests

After initially backing Thaksin and rebuilding his own business, Sondhi in 2005 changed course, saying he realized the former premier was corrupt. He launched a movement against Thaksin that drew thousands of yellow-shirted protesters to the streets.

Thaksin told supporters in 2006 that Sondhi had turned against him because he was upset by the government’s inability to give him a television license, and by the change of management at Krung Thai Bank.

Sondhi survived an assassination attempt in April 2009 when gunmen sprayed his car with more than 50 bullets. The attack followed a military crackdown on anti-government demonstrations against then-Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who Sondhi had supported at the time.

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