BANGKOK • Ousted Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra doled out sacks of rice to hundreds of star-struck shoppers on Saturday in her latest move to outshine the junta's efforts to support farmers hit by a price plunge.
Tumbling rice prices have spread anguish across Thailand's rural heartlands and sent the junta scrambling to roll out rescue packages and head off potential unrest. Ms Yingluck, whose government was toppled in the 2014 coup, has also seized the moment to rally behind rice farmers - the core support base of her family's political dynasty.
Ms Yingluck travelled to the rural north-east of the country this week to buy several truckloads of rice from struggling farmers.
The ex-premier then set up shop in a Bangkok parking lot to sell sacks of the staple grain to frenzied fans. Hundreds of supporters lined up and squealed with delight as the 49-year-old began handing out bags of rice from the back of a pick-up truck, priced at 20 baht (79 Singapore cents) per kilo.
"I am here to buy rice from Yingluck, I'm doing it to help her because she helps us," said 60-year-old motorcycle taxi driver Umaporn Kaewthongkha.
"She is good-hearted, beautiful and helps the poor when she can."
Ms Yingluck and her billionaire brother Thaksin Shinawatra, a fellow former premier ousted in a 2006 coup, are loved by large swathes of the rural and urban poor who see them as champions of the downtrodden.
But their critics tell a different story. The Bangkok-based elite and their allies in the military have cast the Shinawatras as corrupt politicians who manipulate the poor with populist handouts.
Ms Yingluck is currently facing up to 10 years in prison and a US$1 billion (S$1.38 billion) fine over her administration's rice policy, which prosecutors say was soaked in graft and cost the state billions.
But while the junta has skewered Ms Yingluck over her rice scheme, last week it approved at least US$1.3 billion in similar loans and subsidies for farmers who are battered by the price fall.
Meanwhile, the low rice prices have many people coming forward to help. Social media is becoming a channel through which farmers can directly sell their rice to consumers for higher prices than to rice mills or middlemen.
Some public and private organisations have offered free space for farmers to sell their products.
On Twitter, user @P_WJ wrote: "This should be the end of rice mills. Farmers should grow rice and join hands to mill and sell the rice by themselves. Consumers can get rice at a cheaper price."
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, THE NATION/ASIA NEWS NETWORK