Thai Government Backs-Up Amid Bangkok Shutdown

By Andrew R. C. Marshall 14 January 2014

BANGKOK— The Thai Foreign Ministry once occupied a neoclassical palace built for a revered 19th-century king.

To find the ministry today, you must search the corridors of a half-deserted Bangkok convention center for a modest room where top officials relocated on Monday to avoid citywide protests—one of many back-up arrangements for a government struggling to fend off protesters besieging the capital.

“We roam around,” said Sek Wannamethee, director-general of the ministry’s information department, with a mirthless laugh. “Tomorrow we might have to find another place.”

That’s because the convention center sits next door to Thailand’s stock exchange, which protesters have threatened to target next as part of their two-month-old campaign to topple caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s government.

Tens of thousands of protesters filled the streets for Monday’s so-called Bangkok Shutdown in a bid to paralyze the city and render Thailand ungovernable.

But as every computer user knows, the best way to cope with unwanted shutdowns is to back-up. This explains why copies of various government ministries and departments are cropping up in often unlikely places across Bangkok and nearby provinces.

The Finance Ministry, which was stormed and occupied by protesters for several weeks last year, is now shut and its staff working from home or satellite offices.

Its Comptroller General’s Department, which manages government expenditure, has moved to premises owned by the Royal Thai Air Force. The Public Debt Management Office (PDMO), which oversees government bond auctions and debt servicing, has moved to a nearby office block.

The Commerce Ministry is operating from an arts and crafts center in neighboring Ayuthaya province.

The Bank of Thailand said it had closed its main office and moved operations to a back-up facility, but declined to say where. Reporters covering the central bank believed it was in Nakhon Pathom province, west of Bangkok.

One department that handles debt securities for retail investors had moved to a branch of Krung Thai Bank Pcl, it said in the statement.

The central bank said 44 commercial bank branches did not open on Monday and 79 closed earlier than usual.

Other agencies might soon be casting around for new homes. Staff were evacuated from the Labor Ministry on Monday and the gates padlocked by protesters.

“Business as Usual”

Caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck occupies a temporary office in northern Bangkok belonging to the Permanent Secretary for Defense, where on Monday she convened a security meeting with ministers and other officials.

Her office could not confirm if the cabinet’s weekly Tuesday meeting would take place.

As part of the “shutdown,” demonstrators threatened to cut off power and water to the homes of senior officials.

Protesters vowed to “give me a lesson,” Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul told reporters on Friday. “That’s why I already packed my stuff and moved out of my house already.”

His ministry’s main building, now housed in a modern office complex and briefly occupied by protesters in November, is also deserted. So is its consular department, in a sprawling government complex in northern Bangkok partially besieged by protesters.

The ministry’s temporary home at the Queen Sirikit National Convention Center is also eerily unpeopled due to the postponement or cancelation of many conferences.

“We’re still functioning as usual,” says information officer Sek. “Working from a temporary site over a short period doesn’t really have much of an impact.”

But he said a “sustained” protest could cause real problems, with all meetings with other government agencies already postponed due to shutdown chaos.

The temporary ministry’s main task now is overseeing advance voting for the Feb. 2 general election, which started on Monday at Thai embassies and consulates in cities worldwide.

The protesters reject the election, saying Thailand’s corrupt political system must first be reformed to expunge the influence of Yingluck and her brother, Thaksin, who was deposed as prime minister by a 2006 military coup.

The opposition Democrat Party is boycotting the election.

About 150,000 Thais living overseas had registered to vote in advance, roughly the same number as for the last election in 2011, said Sek.

“There is a lot of eagerness on the part of Thai communities to exercise their voting rights,” he said.