Thai farmers call off airport protest

February 22, 2014 - 12:00:00 am

Thai police watch over a demonstration in front of Royal Thai Police Sports Club in Bangkok yesterday. 

BANGKOK:  Thai farmers, angry about not being paid under a rice subsidy scheme, called off a tractor drive to Bangkok’s main airport yesterday after an assurance they would get their money, a bit of welcome news for Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

The subsidy programme was among the populist policies pioneered by Yingluck’s billionaire brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, a former prime minister central to a conflict that has divided Thais for years and triggered protests. 

The farmers had said they wanted to make a symbolic protest, with no plans to block air traffic as in 2008, when protesters forced Bangkok’s two main airports to close for more than a week.

Former member of parliament Chada Thaiseth, speaking for the farmers gathered in Ayutthaya province, said they had been assured of payment.

“The government will make payment next week. The farmers will head back now and will see whether the government will pay as promised,” he said. “If it isn’t delivered, we will return.”

He said payments would be made via the state-owned Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives from next week.

The government said it would sell bonds to pay for the rice, a move likely to prompt criticism that it is acting beyond its remit.

Yingluck has headed a caretaker government with limited powers since calling a snap election. Voting this month was disrupted by her opponents, and it could be months before a new government can be installed.

A TV station estimated the number of protesting farmers at between 2,000 and 3,000 in a convoy of as many as 800 tractors, guaranteeing hours of road traffic chaos at least, had it gone ahead.

In further good news for Yingluck, Moody’s Investors Service affirmed Thailand’s government bond rating at Baa1 with a stable outlook.

“Moody’s affirmation is based on the view that Thailand’s credit fundamentals have withstood the political turbulence in the country since the September 2006 coup,” it said, referring to Thaksin’s overthrow by the army.

“The stable rating outlook reflects the expectation that the recent resurgence in political infighting in Bangkok will not undermine Thailand’s credit strengths to a material degree.”

And despite widespread accusations of government corruption, Moody’s cited “overall prudence of monetary and macroeconomic policy as well as fiscal management.” 

The much-maligned rice subsidy programme is critical to Yingluck’s support base in the poorer north and northeast.

Generous subsidies for farmers were a centrepiece of the platform that swept her to power in 2011, but they have left Thailand with vast stockpiles of rice and a bill it is struggling to fund. 

Opposition leaders say the scheme is riven with graft. Losses to the taxpayer, estimated at $6bn a year, have fuelled urban anger with Yingluck.           Reuters

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