A police vehicle set on fire by protesters during fresh clashes in southern Thailand.
BANGKOK: Protesters hurled petrol bombs and bottles of acid at Thai police, who fired tear gas in return, in fresh clashes yesterday over a government rubber subsidy in southern Thailand, officials said.
Several police officers suffered cuts or acid burns as they were forced to retreat by around 1,000 protesters blockading a key road in Nakhon Si Thammarat province, local police said.
“They outnumbered the police... we had to step back, we don’t want any violence,” said Police Colonel Piyawat Supanapong, adding a change of wind direction sent tear gas back into police lines. In recent weeks angry rubber farmers have protested across Thailand’s south calling for government support as the local economy has been hard hit by slumping global prices for the commodity.
Rubber farmers appeared to have been appeased last week by a government offer of 2,520 baht ($80) per rai (0.4 acres, 0.16 hectares) of plantation to help with production costs -- double its previous offer.
But after several days of near calm, yesterday’s protest threatened to re-open the dispute, which has been most fierce in southern regions loyal to the opposition Democrat Party. Protesters blocked the road into the late afternoon as police withdrew. Piyawat said the protesters -- who also torched several police cars and fired marbles from slingshots -- were teenagers and had no leader with whom they could negotiate.
The local rubber union also distanced itself from the violence.
“We don’t know who they are,” said union leader Boonchot Romyen.
“We are checking who they are. Some Rubber farmers may not be happy with the government’s proposals... but I don’t think these are local people.”
Rubber farmers have accused the government of ignoring their plight while spending billions of dollars on a rice price guarantee scheme seen as mainly benefiting ruling party supporters.
The government had previous said another generous price guarantee scheme was something it could not afford, but days of protest appear to have forced a climbdown.
Thailand is the world’s top exporter of natural rubber and anger among the kingdom’s rubber farmers over their falling incomes had posed a growing challenge to Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s two-year-old government.
The kingdom has been beset by protests in recent years, with both supporters and opponents of Yingluck’s brother -- fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra -- taking to the streets. In 2010 two-month demonstrations in Bangkok by the pro-Thaksin “Red Shirts” drew 100,000 protesters at their peak before being crushed in a military crackdown under a previous government.
More than 90 people, mostly civilians, were killed during the demonstrations and nearly 1,900 were injured in Thailand’s worst political bloodshed in decades.