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10 Newsmakers in 2006

Thaksin Shinawatra : Thaksin could never have imagined when his Thai Rak Thai Party won the February 6, 2005, general election by a landslide that his downfall would come so soon.

The year 2006 proved to be the most turbulent ever for the one-time richest man in Thailand. Thaksin had to struggle against growing public sentiment against his administration, which was spearheaded by the People's Alliance for Democracy, led by his friend-turned-foe and former business partner Sondhi Limthongkul. The PAD launched a campaign of street and public park rallies in January to call for Thaksin to be replaced by a royally-nominated premier.

The Thaksin family's tax-free sale of its majority stake in Shin Corp to Singapore's Temasek Holdings for Bt73 billion in late January proved to be the last straw for his opponents. They alleged that Thaksin had abused his powers to get his family such a huge gain.

The growing pressure for his resignation pushed Thaksin into a corner. However, he chose instead to dissolve the House of Representatives on February 24 and call a snap election.

With the three main opposition parties deciding to boycott the April 2 general election, Thaksin and his party managed win almost all 500 House seats. But a few days later, soon after an audience with HM the King, Thaksin tearfully announced that he would not assume the premiership again.

However, the political crisis persisted and in late April His Majesty called on the courts to intervene. In early May the Constitution Court ruled that the April 2 election was illegal.

The ruling brought Thaksin back to take on the role of interim prime minister until a new election, scheduled for October 15.

Thaksin's dream of becoming a political strongman who could rule Thailand for two decades was wiped out by the military coup on September 19, which however was also a blow to the country's democracy.

General Sonthi Boonyaratglin

September 19, 2006, is the defining moment in the life of General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, ushering his seamless transformation from an obscure military commander to become a coup leader.

Sonthi committed the worst sin against democratic rule - seizing power by force - but ironically he has won kudos for his decisive leadership to dethrone the Thaksin Shinawatra regime.

He rolled out every tank in commission to secure the seat of government and then wrote his first junta announcement apologising for any inconvenience caused.

In 74 years of modern political history, Thai citizens have witnessed no less than 16 coups and counter-coups. None of the past coup leaders had ever offered an apology.

Sonthi is the first to factor in the plight of the common man during the seizure of power. His apology for inconvenience depicts humility and secures public sympathy for the bloodless coup as unavoidable to overcome social division.

With one concise phrase, Sonthi has dispelled suspicion about his power grabbing.

As a Pre-Cadet Class 6 and Chulachomklao Class 17 graduate, he received his Army commission in 1969. He served as a special warfare officer for more than 34 years.

He experienced a big career break in 2004 when he was elevated to the rank of four-star general to serve as assistant Army commander-in-chief. His promotion coincided with the outbreak of violence in the South.

In the following year, he became the dark horse to secure the position of Army commander-in-chief. He is the first Muslim to carry the Army's torch.

Sonthi is married to two wives, Sukalaya and Piyada, allowed under Islamic family law.

Sondhi Limthongkul

Media mogul Sondhi Limthongkul was the driving force behind the snowballing protest against then prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, which culminated in the regime change of September.

Sondhi was a close friend of Thaksin. He loyally defended Thaksin during the early years of his administration. When he metamorphosed into an anti-Thaksin firebrand, people couldn't help but wonder whether it was because of the business conflicts between the two.

With his oratory skills, Sondhi launched into his "Thailand Weekly" programme attacking Thaksin in September 2005. The tax-free sale of the Shinawatra and Damapong families' Shin Corp shares in January added more fuel to the fire.

There was no turning back. The anti-Thaksin rallies picked up bigger and bigger audiences.

Sondhi's movement gained momentum when academic groups and non-governmental organisations jumped on the bandwagon and formed the People's Alliance for Democracy.

The turnout at the rallies increased when the venue was moved from one location to another around the capital including commercial districts. Reactions from Thaksin's supporters also grew correspondingly fiercer.

The turning point was the military coup on September 19.

Since the coup, Sondhi seems to have disappeared from the scene. His media outlets - newspaper, website and television - have lost much of their popularity.

General Surayud Chulanont

Surayud may not be well known among the general public - but his name is familiar to political insiders. When he told the whole nation that he had to accept the junta's invitation to take on the role of interim prime minister, it did not take them by surprise.

During the peak of a campaign for His Majesty the King to appoint a new prime minister to replace elected premier Thaksin Shinawatra, Surayud arose as the most favoured candidate.

As a former Army chief and a privy councillor he is close to Privy Council President Gen Prem Tinsulanonda, who was a bitter rival of Thaksin in a game of power that finally led to the coup of September 19.

When the junta seized power from the Thaksin government, it was understandable to see Surayud become the "best" pick of the coup leaders in this context.

In mid-November, Prem likened Surayud to Britain's wartime premier and statesman Winston Churchill, for selflessly taking up the leadership challenge under trying times.

During His Majesty's speech on December 4, he praised Surayud as the man of strong personality and principle.

General Prem Tinsulanonda

Although Prem kept denying his involvement with a plot to oust former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, the Thai Rak Thai Party alleged he was the real kingmaker behind the coup of September 19.

When Prem, the Privy Council President, led the coup leaders to meet His Majesty the King and Her Majesty the Queen at midnight - an hour after the junta's spokesman addressed the nation with its first announcement through all television and radio stations at 11 pm, it was quite clear who was actually directing the play.

News reports about a rift between Prem and Thaksin had continually surfaced since Thaksin had struggled to stay in power and refused to quit despite growing tensions between his supporters and enemies. During the crisis, Thaksin had been warned that the situation could lead to a confrontation - or even bloodshed - in the worst case.

Months before the coup, Thaksin had met Prem at Prem's residence in Bangkok, at which the privy council's president was said to have asked Thaksin to "retreat". But the prime minister vowed to stay on.

When Prem dressed in military uniform, and addressed military students and said that the soldiers belonged to the King, not the government, a "war" between both sides became imminent as diplomacy had clearly failed.

On September 19, military leaders close to Prem staged a coup - the first since 1991 - claiming that the Thaksin government was corrupt and had challenged royal power.

Pojaman Shinawatra

Behind every successful man is a woman. That was once an appropriate description of Khunying Pojaman Shinawatra, the wife of the ousted prime minister Thaksin, before his fall from grace.

This year Pojaman has exerted great influence over Thaksin's political fate.

While Thaksin was in exile in London, the former first lady, who was in Thailand took over her husband's role instead.

After the coup, her most controversial move was to seek a meeting with Privy Council president Prem Tinsulanonda at his residence. It was assumed that Pojaman was trying to lobby Prem to let her husband return to Thailand or an attempt to launder her family's faults as the investigation was still running.

Pojaman visited Prem twice before the military coup. She told Prem that Thaksin would take a break from politics if he won the election - and requested there be no military coup

After Anti-Thaksin protesters came out on the streets, Pojaman reportedly told Thaksin to fight on and not give up the premier post. As a result, he was toppled by the military.

Perhaps Pojaman now regrets urging her husband to hang on to power, and if only Thaksin had refused to do what his wife suggested he could still be in his homeland.

Jaruvan Maintaka

The ruling Council for National Security (CNS) picked Jaruvan to sit on its freshly-launched Assets Examination Committee (AEC) shortly after the coup.

She is a bitter rival of deposed premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who she believed was behind a plot to oust her from the auditor-general's post through the Constitution Court's ruling in 2005 that her selection violated the charter.

Her recent appointment was regarded as one of the best picks at the time when the junta needed some well-known social figures to strengthen its legitimacy for the coup.

Jaruvan as Auditor-General has a solid record of scrutinising the Thaksin government's schemes related to graft scandals and she has won the public's respect for her courage.

However, her self-esteem is sky-high, which some of her new colleagues have found hard to handle.

In the early days of the AEC, Jaruvan succeeded in lobbying the CNS to change the AEC board after she quarrelled with AEC chairman Sawat Chotephanich over the investigation of the Shin Corp's sell-out to Singapore's Temasek Holdings.

Sawat soon resigned in the aftermath of the shuffle.

Jaruvan went further by opening a new battle front with Deputy PM and Finance Minister MR Pridiyathorn Devakula, who she believes has attempted to protect the legacy of Thaksin by retaining the two-and three-digit lottery and its jackpot prize.

General Saprang Kalayanamitr

As one of the top contenders to carry the Army's torch next year, General Saprang Kalayanamitr is seen as having a decisive say about the path back to democratic rule.

Since the September 19 coup, Saprang has gained national prominence as the outspoken junta member spearheading the push to uproot the tentacles of power left by the Thaksin Shinawatra regime.

His fiery remarks have attracted both friends and foes alike within the Council for National Security (CNS).

After serving more than three decades in the Cavalry Corp, Saprang was swiftly promoted as the commander of the Third Army Region in 2005.

His promotion came as a surprise choice as various military cliques tried to counter the rise of Pre-Cadet Class 10 graduates, seen as Thaksin's allies. He belongs to the Pre-Cadet Class 7 clique.

At the height of street protests early this year, he carved out his role as the royalist soldier and aired his critical views on Thaksin's activities, which he said were offensive to the monarchy.

He was among the early anti-Thaksin campaigners blowing the whistle on alleged attempts to undermine the country's revered institution.

In the weeks leading up to the seizure of power, he openly mobilised soldiers and northern residents to act in defiance to the Thaksin regime.

After the peaceful transition of power to the junta, he was rewarded with the elevation to the rank of a four-star general. He concurrently serves as the assistant Army chief and the CNS assistant secretary general.

He has been generating huge publicity relating to his fight against subversive activities involving ousted leaders.

Many political veterans see him as the lightning rod for the CNS.

They also voice concern that his hard-line approach might derail the restoration of democratic rule.

Abhisit Vejjajiva

2006 taught the Democrat Party leader some tough lessons, after taking the reins for less than a year. Expectations were high that the 60-year-old party would re-establish itself under Abhisit's leadership to overtake main rival Thai Rak Thai. But reality has clouded the dream.

The popularity of the Democrats and Abhisit has continued to rank lower than the Thai Rak Thai and Thaksin, respectively - even at the peak of the anti-government campaign.

The TRT accused the Democrats of covertly backing the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) after a deputy party leader became involved in its anti-government rallies while a party spokesman took to a PAD stage at Sanam Luang to oust Thaksin.

Abhisit has been questioned for his "shaky" stand. A few hours after Thaksin dissolved the House on February 24, Abhisit vowed to lead the party in the new election, and was ready to become the next prime minister if the party won.

After discussing with two other opposition parties a day later, however, he led the opposition coalition in boycotting the poll.

Shortly afterwards, Abhisit shocked the democratic community by joining Thaksin's opponents in a move that some people called unconstitutional.

He appealed for a new prime minister to be appointed by His Majesty the King to replace Thaksin.

The King told the whole nation on April 25 that the appeal for a royally-sponsored PM was undemocratic.

While Abhisit returned to the race for the new poll re-scheduled to October 15, the military leaders staged the coup on September 19, putting an end to his campaign.

Abhisit is rumoured to be facing an undercurrent in his party to oust him if the Constitution Tribunal rules to dissolve the Democrat Party for an attempt to make the April 2 poll illegitimate by hiring small parties not to fill candidates.

Nuamthong Phraiwan

To his passengers, 60-year-old Nuamthong Phraiwan would have seemed like just another taxi driver roaming Bangkok's streets.

But his family and those close to him realised that the former Army conscript was a political enthusiast who admired and repeatedly praised democratic government.

No one, however, imagined what he would ultimately do to defend his ideal.

When he rammed his taxi into a tank parked at the Royal Plaza on September 31, the general public might have wondered whether he was mentally sound.

"Nobody would hurt themselves for political ideology" was how a deputy spokesman of the erstwhile Council for Democratic Reform (CDR), which staged the military coup on September 19, put it.

Nuamthong survived the crash with broken ribs and cuts to his chin and lips. His act raised questions about whether he was paid to do it by anti-coup politicians.

But on November 1, after being released from hospital, Nuamthong proved to everyone that he was simply being true to himself as a democracy lover when he hung himself from a pedestrian bridge in front of the Thai Rath newspaper office.

He left a suicide note that said: "My act is to protest against dictatorship ... and let me tell you again that both incidents [the tank crash and the suicide] are calls from my heart. Nobody paid me to do so."

His stance against the coup echoed even after his death, when mourners at his funeral were played a recording of him complaining about the coup over loudspeakers.

In his recorded message, Nuamthong described the CDR as "badmouthing and bullsh***ing", referring to promises not to stage a coup made earlier by some of it members.

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