February 08, 2014 00:00 By Phanu Suphan The Nation
The Suthep Thaugsuban-led anti-government movement appears to be seeking an alliance with rice farmers as the embattled caretaker government struggles to find the money owed to the farmers under the price-pledge scheme.
Yesterday, Suthep, the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) leader, led another march in Bangkok to raise money for farmers who have not been paid for their crops by the government. A further fund-raising march is planned for Monday.
Suthep said yesterday’s march through the main business district of Silom and adjacent areas aimed to collect at least Bt10 million in donations from the public. The money would go towards financing the farmers’ own protests, said PDRC spokesman Akanat Promphan.
In a repeat of previous PDRC marches on Bangkok streets, supporters and sympathisers lined the street to hand cash to Suthep.
The government owes more than a million farmers a total of Bt140 billion under its rice-pledging scheme, a policy that helped the ruling Pheu Thai Party win the 2011 general election but has now run dry of funds. The rice scheme is also the subject of an investigation by the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC).
However, rice growers are split over who should be blamed for the authorities’ defaulting on debts owed. One group of farmers blames the government while another group points the finger at the PDRC.
More than 400 farmers left their road blockade in Kanchanaburi yesterday to join farmers who have been protesting at the Commerce Ministry in Nonthaburi since Thursday.
Many also marched from the ministry to the NACC office to request that the anti-graft agency speed up its investigation into the rice-pledging scheme. After an hour-long meeting between representatives of both sides, the farmers said they were satisfied with a promise that the results of the investigation would be delivered within the next few months.
About 100 Nakhon Phanom farmers gathered yesterday at the Third Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge, threatening to blockade it with a force of 10,000 protesters if the government failed to pay what it owed them within seven days. The 18,789 Nakhon Phanom farmers under the scheme are owed a total of Bt1.39 billion by the government. Elsewhere, more than 250 farmers in Kamphaeng Phet and more 1,000 in Suphan Buri yesterday submitted letters to provincial governors asking Suthep to help push through loans to pay the rice scheme’s debts.
The Kamphaeng Phet growers also asked him to help alleviate the plight of more than 30,000 farming households in the province that have not had rice-pledge payments for the past four to five months.
In Phitsanulok, a group of about 200 farmers gathered at the city hall, calling on Suthep’s help to push through funds for the rice scheme.
A government proposal that rice millers accept receipts from farmers under the scheme has met with reluctance on the part of the rice millers.
Rice Millers Club of Phichit vice chairman Wirat Limthongsomjai said it was unlikely rice millers would accept the pledge receipts because they were already under financial stress. Banks have extended a total Bt300-million credit limit to farmers, while the farmers’ debt totals billions of baht.
“Moreover, each miller will have to reserve cash to buy rice from the next crop,” Wirat said.
Democrat spokesman Chavanond Intarakomalyasut agreed with the government’s idea to encourage rice millers to lend farmers up to 50 per cent of the value of their pledge receipts. But he said the government would have to pay the interest incurred from this deal.