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Thai govt under more pressure over rice bill

Publication Date : 11-02-2014


Rice farmers demanding to be paid under a subsidy scheme are adding pressure on Thailand's already beleaguered government, as it struggles to find a way to foot the massive bill for the populist rice-purchase policy that has backfired badly.

Over a thousand farmers gathered on Monday at a Ministry of Defence building that caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her Cabinet use.

The ministers work from this building after being forced to abandon their regular offices by protesters from the People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), which has been holding rallies in Bangkok in its bid to force the government out of power.

The government, after being disrupted by the PDRC demonstrations for weeks, struck back on Monday for the first time by arresting one of the protest leaders.

Sonthiyarn Chuenruethai- naitham was arrested and will be held for seven days before being produced in court and charged with sedition.

He was one of 19 PDRC leaders who had arrest warrants issued for them last week, and are not allowed to leave the country.

But it is the demands of the rice farmers that have become a major problem for a government and ruling party that draws support from rural voters, amid the continuing protests by PDRC supporters.

And there is a possibility that the two separate protests may merge to add more headache to the Yingluck government.

PDRC supporters on Monday welcomed the farmers and marched through the streets of Bangkok appealing for donations to help make payments to the rice farmers.

Under the two-year-old scheme, which is a flagship policy of the ruling Puea Thai party, some of the farmers have sold rice to the government - at prices above the world market - but have yet to be paid for up to six months in some cases.

This has driven many into the clutches of loan sharks.

The protests have been emotional, with many farmers becoming increasingly desperate.

One farmers' group on Monday said it would seize rice warehouses from the government, a move that would drive the government further into a financial hole. The government is sitting on around 20 million tonnes of rice, which it can sell only at bargain basement prices.

And as leader of a caretaker government, Yingluck cannot raise the money it may need to pay the farmers - up to US$4 billion - except through borrowing from private banks. The banks are not issuing loans to a caretaker administration in the uncertain political climate.

The farmers in recent days have blocked highways in the north to demand payment. Monday's protest was the biggest yet in Bangkok.

Disillusionment with the government's rice scheme is thought to have dented the Puea Thai's showing at the polls on February 2 - the first round of a contentious general election.

As PDRC supporters marched in downtown Bangkok collecting donations, Sonthiyarn was arrested in a mall some distance away in Lad Prao.

Most PDRC leaders have been spending days and nights inside rally sites, surrounded by people and their own guards. This has made it difficult for police still under orders to show maximum restraint, which has allowed the protesters virtual free run of the city, to move in and arrest them.

In a sign of the volatility of the political stalemate, a homemade bomb exploded on Monday at a spot previously occupied by PDRC protesters, injuring several street cleaners.


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