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May 19, 2010 6:49 PM

Thailand Report: Big Firms Shutter Bangkok Offices and Thaksin Hires Amsterdam

Posted by Brian Baxter

UPDATE #2: June 2, 7:20 a.m. Thailand's current Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has survived a no confidence vote over the Bangkok protests.

UPDATE #1: May 20, 9:00 a.m. This story has been updated with the Bangkok office closures of Hunton & Williams and Australian firm Allens Arthur Robinson and a quote from Mayer Brown partner Peter Burke.

Robert Amsterdam is no stranger to dangerous assignments, so the client he's recently gone to work for puts Amsterdam back in familiar territory.

The Bronx-born international defense lawyer, best known for representing jailed Russian businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was retained earlier this month by former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra via supporters of the telecom billionaire. The assignment put Amsterdam in the middle of Bangkok for three days just as Thai troops were stepping up their crackdown on Thaksin's Red Shirt supporters, creating some anxious moments for him.

"I just got out of Bangkok where I was in the Red Shirt compound," Amsterdam says by phone from Hong Kong. "I did not know if I would get out. The whole fucking thing is just a terrible tragedy." (See below for an interview Amsterdam gave Al Jazeera's English channel on the tenuous political situation in Thailand.)

Amsterdam, a founder of London-based Amsterdam & Peroff, says that Thaksin is being unfairly vilified.

"These people are risking their lives and the government is trying to portray Thaksin as some kind of terrorist that they should go arrest, because he's the most popular man in Thailand," he says. "Thaksin was popularly elected on a number of occasions, unlike some of the individuals currently in power."

Thaksin was deposed in a bloodless military coup in September 2006. The four years that followed have seen political paralysis seize Thailand--Time has a breakdown of the various factions vying for power in the country--with protests beginning to gain new momentum last month.

Thaksin's foes accuse him of being the most corrupt politician in Thailand, and efforts to go after his assets originally led him to retain Baker Botts to fight the seizures. The firm is no longer representing Thaksin, who remains in exile. (Michael Goldberg, chair of the firm's international arbitration and dispute resolution practice, handled the assignment for the Baker Botts but didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.)

Meanwhile, the civil unrest currently roiling central Bangkok led current Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to declare a government holiday between May 17 and May 21. That in turn forced the temporary closures of the offices of several Am Law 100 and international firms.

Out-of-office e-mail responses from several partners at firms with offices in Bangkok indicated that Baker & McKenzie, Herbert Smith, Hunton & Williams, Linklaters, Mayer Brown, and Australian firm Allens Arthur Robinson have all closed their doors until the situation calms down. None of the partners contacted immediately responded to the messages.

A spokeswoman for Linklaters told The Am Law Daily that limited transportation in Bangkok, coupled with the closure of certain main roads and the increasingly unstable political situation, required the firm to shutter its Bangkok base of operations last Friday to ensure the safety of employees.

"We've been assured that our Bangkok team and their families remain safe and they continue to provide seamless service to clients and the rest of the Linklaters network using mobile and remote working solutions," Genevieve Javellana said in an e-mail.

A Hunton spokeswoman said that the firm's office in front of Lumpini Park, the site of much of the recent violence, had closed last Thursday and that all personnel were safe. Security for the building will be reassessed before the office tower is opened.

Mayer Brown corporate partner Peter Burke said that his firm's Bangkok offices are also near where protests have occurred, but that "secure remote IT systems" have enabled staffers to access client files from home or temporary offices overseas. He hopes the firm's office will reopen in several days.

As for Amsterdam, he's trying to muster international support for the Red Shirt cause after the group's leaders turned themselves in to avoid more casualties. Amsterdam says he was with the leaders in their compound drafting a platform that contains pledges to avoid violence and to negotiate unconditionally. (Amsterdam's personal blog chronicles some of his other experiences on the ground in Bangkok, as does this op-ed he wrote about the Red Shirts for The Australian.)

Amsterdam says he flew to Hong Kong early Wednesday (EST) with several of Thaksin's Thai lawyers because "we could no longer function in Bangkok."

"The [Thai] government is going to use these protests as a pretext to try to go after my client, because they are just deathly afraid of him," Amsterdam says. "Now we are going to investigate and document the absolutely extra-legal behavior of the Thai government and military."

Amsterdam says the Obama administration has been "incredibly quiet" about what is unfolding in Thailand.

"The writing is on the wall that this [Thai] government is not long for this earth," Amsterdam adds. "Abhisit has to resign and they have to call for elections."

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