February 15, 2014 00:00 By Tan Hui Yee The Straits Times
It's not often that a government invitation to a press briefing in laissez faire Bangkok comes with specific instructions on how to enter a ministry compound.
Then again, this is a city that has been under a state of emergency for the past month. Polling that was disrupted in 69 of 375 constituencies has denied its government full power. The streets are occupied by a dwindling number of protesters locked in a three-month-long test of will against the administration.
Small teams of protesters have roved around the capital, threatening to cut off the power and water supply of government compounds if they were not vacated. They padlock the gates after civil servants leave to try to cripple the caretaker administration of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. Their antics have forced Yingluck to work from the office of the permanent secretary of defence, and justice ministry officials to take shelter in a software park. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) at one point operated from a convention centre.
The Centre for Maintaining Peace and Order overseeing security says about 50 government offices “closed” by protesters have been reopened to allow government services to continue. MFA officials say they tried to sneak into their own ministry twice last week. Each time they were spotted by protesters, who chained and padlocked the gates again.
On Thursday, the ministry mustered the courage to invite foreign officials for a briefing on the political crisis. Some 30 diplomats turned up, their flag-bearing Mercedes Benz cars slipping quietly into the compound guarded by police armed with riot shields.
They were greeted by suited officials almost relieved at walking down the vast marbled hallways instead of some makeshift corridors.
One senior MFA official recalled the “surreal” experience of returning to an office vacated one month ago, still bearing Christmas decorations.
Another official said: “We are not fully closed ... But we are not functioning properly either. We can’t be too obvious in case the mob notices it.”
Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul, second in command only to Yingluck and reportedly close to her brother and fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, took a far tougher stance.
“Whichever protester enters the ministry, I will arrest him,” he told reporters. “We cannot stop [work],” he said. “We have to look after our people overseas.”
The caretaker government – as well as Yingluck’s Pheu Thai party – is fighting for survival on many fronts. It has amassed some 250 arrest warrants against protesters and is looking for an opportunity to haul them in.
But the government is wary of provoking any violent confrontation that would give the military an excuse to intervene. It is also treading gingerly on election-related matters so as not to be caught out by any legal technicality.
Hence, it has repeatedly declined the Election Commission’s calls to issue a new royal decree to hold polls for 28 constituencies left vacant because protester blockades prevented candidates from registering.
“According to the constitutional law, you cannot have a duplicate royal decree,” Surapong told reporters. But if the Constitutional Court says “in exact words they allow us to do that, yes we can do that”.
One can understand his caution, given how the charter court has thrown out two Thaksin-aligned premiers over the past eight years.
Then just as quickly, Surapong was ushered out of his own ministry to an unknown destination.
The gates of its compound were shut tight, to be opened only on request.