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Criticism by Thai King Causes PM to Back Down in Campaign Against Critics


Lawyers for Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra have withdrawn libel suits against a leading government critic after Thailand's highly respected king called for greater tolerance in political debate. The king's words are seen as providing a way for Mr. Thaksin to step back from a growing political controversy.

Lawyers for Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra had filed several libel suits against media operator Sondhi Limthongkul, a fierce critic. The suits sought a total of $50 million in damages.

On Sunday, Thailand's revered monarch, King Bhumipol Adulyadej delivered his annual birthday speech, saying all Thais - including himself and Prime Minister Thaksin - needed to accept criticism.

The message to Mr. Thaksin was clear, and on Tuesday, he instructed his lawyers to withdraw the lawsuits against Mr. Sondhi.

Mr. Thaksin is known for his sensitivity to political attack, especially by the news media. Filing libel lawsuits has been one of his favorite ways of striking back at his critics. This practice has led to accusations that he is trying to stifle free expression.

The political situation has been deteriorating, and Pasuk Pongpaichit, a political economist at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, says King Bhumipol's address provided a way for Mr. Thaksin to step back from a worsening situation.

"My reading is that the people around the prime minister have probably realized for sometime that the reaction against Khun Sondhi was overdone," said Pasuk Pongpaichit. "The King's speech have [sic] given opportunity for the government to have a way out rather than letting it become a political time bomb."

The lawsuits against Mr. Sondhi were triggered by his allegations that Mr. Thaksin and his government are guilty of corruption and nepotism, as well as interference the country's religious affairs.

In August, Mr. Sondhi's political commentary show on state run TV was canceled. Mr. Sondhi began holding political rallies that have drawn as many as 20,000 people. He has called for a half million people to attend his next rally, scheduled for this coming Friday.

Mr. Thaksin's supporters responded to the criticism. In November, a high-ranking general warned Mr. Sondhi publicly against continuing his attacks. Unknown attackers smeared the Sondhi publishing house with pig manure, and there was an explosion outside his office.

King Bhumipol, who marks 60 years on the throne in 2006, is a constitutional monarch who rarely becomes directly involved in Thailand's political life. But his stature is so great that when he does, he has the ability to resolve a situation quickly.

In 1992, the king intervened to halt bloody street demonstrations against the Thai military's hold on political power. He summoned the then-prime minister and the leader of a pro-democracy movement, and forced them on live television to agree to reach a peaceful settlement.