Doing my best, says Prayut as Thailand rice farmers grow desperate over falling prices

Ousted former Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra receives ears of rice from her supporters as she arrives at the Supreme Court for a trial on criminal negligence looking into her role in a debt-ridden rice subsidy scheme, in Bangkok on Nov 4, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

BANGKOK (AFP) - Thailand's junta chief on Friday (Nov 4) pleaded for trust in his rice policy, as a price slump deepens anguish among poor farmers fiercely loyal to the government he toppled.

Rice is Thailand's staple dish and one of its main agricultural exports, but also carries immense political value as farmers are the backbone of a pro-democracy movement that the junta has suppressed.

A global oversupply has seen rice prices tumble, hitting as low as 5,000-6,000 baht (S$196.76-236.93) per tonne, leaving many farmers with big losses.

This week, the junta approved a rescue package of at least US$1.3 billion (S$1.8 billion) in subsidies for farmers who agree to delay selling their crops to avoid a glut.

But it is an awkward policy for a junta that has pursued toppled ex-premier Yingluck Shinawatra through the courts for a similar subsidy scheme.

"I know that farmers are suffering, but my government is doing its best," coup-leader turned premier Prayut Chan-o-cha said on Friday.

"I'm not forcing anyone to do anything or destroying the rice business, but if we keep doing things the old-fashioned way, we will keep facing the same problems," he added.

He also hit out at political "PR stunts" in an apparent reference to Ms Yingluck, who on Thursday (Nov 3) was greeted by tearful farmers as she toured the rural north-east - Thailand's top rice basket and her political heartland.

With prices plummeting, some desperate farmers have started selling sacks of rice on Facebook and Instagram.

Ms Yingluck's flagship rice-pledging policy saw her government buy paddy from farmers at nearly twice the market rate in an effort to drive up global prices.

It cemented her popularity among many farmers, but led to huge stockpiles of unsold rice and galvanised protests against her government that led to the 2014 coup.

Since then, the junta has tangled her in legal cases and blocked a political comeback.

She faces a US$1 billion fine and up to 10 years in prison in a negligence trial over the rice scheme, which prosecutors say was riddled with graft.

But she retains the loyalty of rice farmers.

On Friday, Ms Yingluck was swarmed by supporters, many handing her rice stalks or 20 baht notes, outside the Bangkok court where her trial is being held.

"I am overwhelmed with farmers' golden hearts. Even though they are seriously suffering and don't have money to spend... they still came to offer me moral support," she told reporters.

But she was coy on her views on the junta's rice policy saying: "I will not go into detail, but it's the same principle as my rice pledging scheme."

Parties led by or aligned to Ms Yingluck and her billionaire brother Thaksin Shinawatra, a former premier ousted in an earlier coup, have won every general election since 2001.

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