Besieged but running: Thailand's Finance Ministry

Reuters

By Orathai Sriring and Andrew R.C. Marshall

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Protesters are bedding down on plastic sheets in its grand reception area. Some bathe in the well-kept garden or hang laundry from its potted plants.

But Thailand's Finance Ministry insists it still runs despite thousands of demonstrators occupying its buildings.

As political tension rises in Bangkok, protesters seeking to topple Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra settled in at the Finance Ministry on Tuesday for a second day.

Most bureaucrats left on Monday when the protesters stormed in, waving flags and blowing whistles. But a determined few stayed behind, including those at the all-important revenue department.

"Today we work normally in the office," said a Revenue Department officer.

Very little is normal, however, about the besieged ministry in Bangkok's government district.

Not all its seven buildings have power. Protesters flicked the switch on a transformer outside the main building to shut off the lights shortly before entering on Monday.

Many senior civil servants retreated to a back-up office at a central business district building.

"Key officials are still working as normal from our backup office," Finance Minister Kittirat Na Ranong told Reuters. "So there will be no impact on the fiscal budget and important functions."

There was no imminent threat to auctions of government bonds, which are handled by the Bank of Thailand. One of its officials said an auction of 5 billion baht ($160 million) of government bonds on Wednesday would be conducted as usual.

Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, until recently a senior Democrat Party politician, told Reuters on Tuesday that the demonstration "might be longer" than the three days originally planned. He has camped overnight in the building.

The Finance Ministry protesters seem to be taking that news seriously. They form human chains beneath pick-up trucks to unload hundreds of packs of drinking water.

In scenes more like a rock festival than a revolution, electricity generators have been set up in the parking lot to power the stage lights and sound system. They also recharge the cellphones which protesters use to shoot "selfies" in front of the ministry's official bird-of-paradise seal.

"EAT FOR FREE"

Direk Sutthikong, 54, an ebullient clothes merchant from the southern city of Ranong, is camped out on plastic sheets in the ministry's reception area.

Direk spent the previous night on the hard floor with his sister, his grown-up daughter and dozens of other protesters, who he said had everything they needed. Makeshift canteens dispense food and water donated by well-wishers.

"Anything you want to eat, you can eat for free, even ice cream," he said.

The doors to the reception are flanked by two garland-draped elephant statues which watch over dozens of pairs of shoes and sandals. Protesters go barefoot inside the building, as they would in one of Bangkok's myriad Buddhist temples.

Most of the building is still out of bounds, say protesters, who are camped out in sheltered hallways and stairways between the compound's buildings.

In the well-kept garden, women in sarongs wash themselves beneath a hosepipe. Toilets are provided on a bus parked outside the gates, said Direk, although the whiff of urine emanates from the ministry's darker corners.

Finance Minister Kittirat said he was worried the closure, however, would hurt investor confidence. "There will be some impact on the economy in the current quarter if the situation continues," he said.

Thailand's economy, Southeast Asia's second largest, has already slowed this year due to weak exports and subdued domestic demand. The state planning agency said growth could be just 1 percent in the final quarter from a year earlier.

A large number of Finance Ministry bureaucrats sympathize with the protesters, who are aligned with the elite-backed opposition Democrat Party.

"Some people were very happy to let the protesters in," said an official in the Public Debt Management Office who declined to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media. "Thailand is decidedly split right now and most people at the Finance Ministry side with the protesters."

The official said there would be no immediate impact on civil-servant salaries, unless the protests were prolonged. "They were filed three to four days ago. If this continues, there will be an impact on December salaries."

"If they close other ministries down its game over for the government," he said.

The protesters occupying the ministry come from all walks of life, said Manoonsak Tantiwat, 63, formerly a senior official at the nearby Environment Ministry.

"They are doctors, farmers, engineers," said Manoonsak, who wore a whistle around his neck, which the protesters blow to signal their opposition. "People are waking up."

He said occupying the ministry was symbolic, since it controlled the money of a government he said was "the most corrupt in my lifetime". As night fell, hundreds more protesters arrived on tuk-tuks and motorbikes, undeterred by downpours.

Also at the ministry to support the protesters was Sombat Thamrongthanyawong, a prominent academic. He said it was hard to tell how long the occupation would last.

"But the longer they stay, the more support they'll get," he said.

(Additional reporting by Pairat Temphairojana and Pracha Hariraksapitak; Editing by Jason Szep and Robert Birsel)

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