Thai rice farmers protest in new challenge to Yingluck

BANGKOK (AFP) - Dozens of Thai rice farmers mounted a protest in Bangkok on Thursday in the latest show of public anger against Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's embattled government.

A controversial scheme to guarantee farmers above-market rates for rice has become a lightning rod for anger among Ms Yingluck's critics, who say it has encouraged corruption, drained the public coffers and left the country with a mountain of unsold stock.

About 200 rice farmers, accompanied by trucks and combine harvesters, massed outside the commerce ministry in protest at the lack of payment under the scheme, which knocked the kingdom from its position as the world's top rice exporter in 2012.

"I want the government to help because I have no money to use now. We have suffered a lot otherwise we would not come," said farmer Sunan Poompuang.

"If they cannot solve the problem, then let other people do the job."

Farmers also blocked two highways leading into Bangkok, according to police.

The government blames three months of demonstrations on Bangkok's streets for derailing the scheme, with Ms Yingluck saying her administration's powers have been limited after the dissolution of parliament in December.

Her opponents - who have besieged a number of state buildings to stop civil servants going to work - insist the problems began before the government took a caretaker role.

A controversial election held on Sunday failed to resolve the crisis with opposition protesters disrupting the polls in parts of the country, in an attempt to stop Ms Yingluck's Puea Thai party returning to power.

Government critics say the rice subsidies are a wasteful use of taxpayers' money to buy the loyalty of voters in Puea Thai strongholds in the kingdom's north and northeast.

Ms Yingluck's older brother Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted as prime minister by the military in 2006 and lives in Dubai to avoid jail for a corruption conviction, is hugely popular in rural northern Thailand, thanks to his populist policies while in power.

Concerns surrounding the rice scheme grew this week after the commerce ministry announced that a Chinese firm had cancelled a one million tonne order for stockpiled rice.

The deal broke down after a Thai anti-corruption panel announced graft charges against several officials in relation to the price guarantee programme.

The National Anti-Corruption Commission last month also opened a probe into possible negligence of duty by Ms Yingluck in connection with the scheme.

The government has been reluctant to reveal the full cost of the scheme or the exact size of its rice stockpile.

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