$10b govt aid not helping, say frustrated Thai farmers

A farmer spraying pesticide over his rice field in Nakhonsawan province, north of Bangkok. The agricultural labour force is a key political battleground, with rubber farmers in the south generally backing the Bangkok-based royalist-military establish
A farmer spraying pesticide over his rice field in Nakhonsawan province, north of Bangkok. The agricultural labour force is a key political battleground, with rubber farmers in the south generally backing the Bangkok-based royalist-military establishment and rural support in the north and north-east for the Shinawatras. PHOTO: REUTERS

Discontent with junta grows as rural economy remains in recession for over a year

BANGKOK • Billions of dollars in government spending aimed at revitalising Thailand's ailing rural economy have failed to reach farmers hit by weak commodity prices and drought, fuelling disaffection with the military government ahead of elections expected next year.

Loss of income and rising costs mean farmers are feeling the pinch in South-east Asia's second-largest economy, where rural areas have been in recession for over a year.

The junta, which took power in 2014, had pledged to wean farmers off expensive subsidies used by the government it overthrew, including a rice scheme that cost billions.

But it changed its tune as the rural economy contracted for five straight quarters. Over the past five months, the government has announced measures worth around 258 billion baht (S$10.2 billion) to help rural Thailand, which accounts for half of the population.

That included US$1 billion (S$1.4 billion) in October for rice farmers, many of whom voted for ousted prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra in her 2011 general election win.

The agricultural labour force has been a key battleground in a bitter divide that has seen the country split along north-south political lines since the ouster of Ms Yingluck's brother, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, in 2006.

On one side is the Bangkok-based royalist-military establishment, supported by parts of the south, which sees former telecommunications billionaire Thaksin as a threat.

On the other side are the Shinawatras' rural supporters in the north and north-east.

The junta has cracked down on political activity and sought to re- concile the deeply splintered society. But critics say divisions are as sharp as ever and will re-emerge when the country moves back towards democracy. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has said an election will take place next year.

The junta also has had to try to appease rubber farmers, who typically support the Bangkok-based establishment but demanded help after their incomes collapsed with a slowdown in demand from China.

So far, rubber farmers have avoided direct confrontations with the junta, which has banned gatherings of more than five people for political reasons.

Farmers whom Reuters spoke to said the support schemes have not worked and payments have been slowed by bureaucracy.

"The scheme is a failure," said Mr Saksarit Sriprasart, a farmers' leader in southern Trang province, referring to a US$152 million plan to buy rubber from farmers to support prices.

The expected return of Thailand as the world's top rice exporter is cold comfort to farmers at the other end of the country. They saw prices fall to eight-year lows late last year.

"The government is so late with disbursement. What are they doing?" said Mr Chalerm Sanaedee, 60, in the north-eastern province of Udon Thani.

A failure to solve rural problems was eroding any confidence in the junta, said Mr Kan Yuenyong, an analyst at the Siam Intelligence Unit think-tank.

"The honeymoon period is over and people are less forgiving with the junta," he said.

"These problems are really damaging their legitimacy."

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 12, 2016, with the headline '$10b govt aid not helping, say frustrated Thai farmers'. Print Edition | Subscribe