Thai farmers call off airport rally in Bangkok

Farmers call off protest drive to Bangkok after overnight assurances from prime minister that they will receive payment for rice submitted to a government pledging scheme.

Farmers call off protest drive to Bangkok after overnight assurances from prime minister that they will receive payment for rice submitted to a government pledging scheme.

By Jim Pollard

BANGKOK - Thousands of Thai farmers called off a protest drive to Bangkok on Friday after overnight assurances from the prime minister that they would soon start to receive payment for rice submitted to a government pledging scheme.

The farmers - many driving a multicolored fleet of around 1,000 tractors decorated with the red, white and blue Thai flag - had planned to mass at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport.

But the caretaker government moved swiftly to prevent the more than 5,000 farmers from massing at the country's international air traffic hub.

The decision to call off the protest comes with some relief to a government besieged by demonstrations and protesters, many of whom wished to use the farmer's plight as a second front to oust Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

The thought of the huge and potentially volatile mob descending on Suvarnabhumi had rung alarm bells among government and business leaders who feared a repeat of an airport blockade by protesters in 2008 - a crisis which brought down the then-government and cost the country billions in tourist revenue.

The farmers were led by Chada Thiseth - a member of the Chart Thai Pattana Party - which is a minor partner of the government.

Thiseth told reporters Friday that he had negotiated a settlement last night with former prime minister Somchai Wongsawat - a brother-in-law of former Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra, and married to the elder sister of current PM Yingluck.

"The government will make payment next week... If it isn't delivered, we will return," Thiseth told reporters in Ayutthaya, just north of Bangkok.

Payments are understood to start next week.

The government has been scrambling to find funds to pay the estimated 110 billion baht (about US$3.5 billion) owed to some 1.5 million farmers for crops submitted under the highly controversial rice-pledging scheme, which was introduced soon after embattled Shinawatra's Puea Thai party (For the Thais) won the 2011 election with 75 percent of the vote.

Under the scheme, the government buys rice at a price way above market value from the farmers - long the government's support base.

At first, the program proved popular, but quickly ran into hundreds of billions of baht (billions of euros) of financial losses. It was also heavily criticized for opening the door to corruption.

“At the beginning we were paid for our rice about ten days after we brought it to the rice-mills, but now, I have not been paid for over eight months,” Langsan Kampacha, a rice-farmer at a protest in Bangkok on Monday told the Anadolu Agency.

Thailand was the world's No. 1 rice exporter for 30 years, but in 2012 fell behind Vietnam and India - largely because it was unable to unable to sell rice on the world market that it had bought from Thai farmers at such a high price.

The rice in government storage for 2014 will reach a record of 14.5 millions tons, compared with 6.1 millions tons in 2010.

Shinawatra is facing a wave of opposition protests after her government pushed through an amnesty which would have lifted a conviction against her brother, Thaksin – a deeply-divisive figure whose Thai Rak Thai (Thais love Thais) party led the country from 2001 to 2006 before he was found guilty of abuse of power.

Confronted by protests, the government withdrew the bill, but the opposition has alleged massive corruption by the government and Shinawatra family.

Shinawatra dissolved parliament and called February 2 elections, which were disrupted by protesters who want an unelected "people's council" to run Thailand until the political system is reformed.

Anti-government movement the People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) has asked the Constitutional court to nullify the elections and dissolve the government for “abuse of administrative power” in their organization.

The PDRC saw the farmers’ revolt as a golden opportunity. Their leader, former opposition MP Suthep Thaugsuban, had collected 24 million baht (540,000 euros) to support the farmer's cause, and PDRC activists have supplied them with food and drinks since they arrived in Bangkok on February 6.

On Wednesday, the prime minister was summoned to appear before the country's Anti-Corruption Commission on February 27 on corruption charges related to the rice subsidies program.

A release by the Commission said that although many people had warned about corruption and massive financial losses in the program, she continued with it.

The Commission does not have the power of indictment - it can press charges, but then it has to transfer the case to the Thai Supreme Court. If the court accepts the case, there can be an indictment, a trial and eventually a conviction.

Copyright © 2014 Anadolu Agency