Anti-government protesters in Thailand plan to collect money for farmers as they march in Bangkok on Friday, seeking to capitalise on discontent in rural areas at the state’s failure to pay for rice bought under a controversial subsidy scheme.
Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was helped to power by a promise to buy rice from millions of farmers at a price that was way above the market level. The government has been unable to sell the rice to fund the scheme and some farmers have been waiting months to get paid.
The protest movement in Bangkok trying to oust Yingluck has found much of its support from middle-class taxpayers appalled at what they see as corruption and waste in the rice scheme, but it is now trying to make common cause with the farmers.
“On Friday we will march through the business district of Silom to get donations to give to the farmers ... This is the way to get money from the rich to help the poor,” Akanat Promphan, a spokesman for the movement, told reporters.
Hundreds of farmers rallied at the Commerce Ministry but Prasit Boonchoey, head of the Thai Rice Farmers Association, denied they were backing protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban.
“This is a farmers’ problem and we won’t be joining Suthep’s protest. We are just calling for what is ours, which is the money the government should pay us,” he said.
The Northern Farmers Network, a group claiming 50,000 members, has besieged the provincial hall in Phichit province in the lower north and blocked highways around the region.
“There’s no way this caretaker government can find the money for us,” its chairman, Kittisak Rattanawaraha, said. “That’s why we’re pressing the government to get out.”
Kittisak also said his network was not aligned with Suthep and had no plans to march on Bangkok, although he acknowledged that some farmers supported the protest movement.
Rice farmers have until now been natural supporters of Yingluck and her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, who raised living standards in the countryside with populist policies such as cheap healthcare when he was prime minister from 2001.
However, he ran up against opposition from the royalist establishment and the army, which toppled him in 2006, setting off eight years of political turmoil.
Thaksin fled into exile in 2008 to avoid being jailed for abuse of power but is widely seen as the force behind Yingluck. The latest unrest was sparked by her government’s attempt in November to push a political amnesty bill through parliament that would have let him come back home a free man.
Yingluck called a snap election to try to defuse the protests but the February 2 vote was disrupted in Bangkok and the south, strongholds of the opposition Democrat Party.
Election officials met for a second day on Friday to work out how to complete the voting.
Yingluck’s Puea Thai Party is certain to have won the vote but it is unclear when there will be enough lawmakers elected to form a quorum in parliament to re-elect her as prime minister. Thailand may be stuck with a caretaker government, with only limited spending powers, for many weeks to come.
The protesters’ numbers have dwindled. National Security Council chief Paradorn Pattantabutr estimated that only about 3,000 people were camped out now at the various protest sites.
A state of emergency was declared by the government ahead of the election and Paradorn said 19 arrest warrants had now been issued against protest leaders for violating the decree. Another 39 would be sought on Monday.
“When the right moment comes, we will arrest these leaders. At this point, we have teams of police following the movements of those who have arrest warrants out for them but we guarantee we won’t break up the protests,” he told reporters.