Thailand's rubber farmers say latest help from ruling junta is not enough

A man tapping rubber in Surat Thani province, southern Thailand.
A man tapping rubber in Surat Thani province, southern Thailand.ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE

BANGKOK (REUTERS) - Steps announced this week by Thailand's ruling junta to help rubber producers grappling with plunging prices do not go far enough, some farmers said on Wednesday (Jan 13).

The Cabinet has promised to buy some rubber directly from farmers at rates above market levels and announced piecemeal measures including a plan to open up rubber processing factories.

The moves came after protest threats by rubber farmers galvanised a military government that draws much of its support from Bangkok and the south, the country's main rubber-growing region.

Farmers have been calling for solutions to falling demand for rubber, driven by a slowdown in the economy of China, the world's biggest importer of the commodity.

The government said it would buy rubber directly from producers at prices of up to 60 baht (S$2.37) a kilogram before the current tree tapping season ends. But that disappointed some farmers who had been demanding a set price of 60 baht, roughly double current market levels.

Mr Suthorn Rakrong, a spokesman for 16 rubber groups, said on Wednesday that if prices did not reach 60 baht within 30 days protests would take place, but added that the government still had his support.

"Rubber farmers in the south are rooting for the government. We can see that they are trying," he said.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha had pledged to wean rice and rubber farmers off expensive subsidies used by the government it ousted, but - under pressure to please politically powerful farmers - it approved more than US$1 billion in rural subsidies last year.

"I have worked almost to death, I have done more than other governments," General Prayut told reporters in response to questions about demands made by rubber farmers.

Thailand has been broadly split along north-south political lines for more than a decade.

A bastion of the conservative, military-royalist establishment, southern Thailand hosts much of the country's tourism and is also the main rubber-growing region.

The north and north-east holds the support of ousted, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, whose government was ended by the army in 2014.

Rubber farmers were among the first groups to protest in 2013 against the civilian government led by Yingluck.

Mr Saksarit Sriprasart, a farmer leader, said on Wednesday his group would get rid of "inefficient government officials who cannot solve rubber price problems".

"Our faith in the government has never been so shaken."