BANGKOK (REUTERS) - Thailand announced a slump in trade figures on Tuesday with the biggest drop in imports in more than four years in January, as months of anti-government protests extended their economic toll beyond falling tourism numbers.
The protesters, whose disruption of a general election this month left Thailand in political limbo, aim to topple caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and erase the influence of her brother, ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra, seen by many as the power behind the government.
Weeks of unrest, most of it in the capital, Bangkok, have been interrupted by occasional bombs and gunfire, with one blast killing a woman and a young brother and sister in a busy shopping district on Sunday.
Imports fell 15.5 per cent in January from a year earlier, the biggest tumble since October 2009. Imports of computers and parts were down 19 per cent from a year earlier, auto parts off 31.8 per cent and consumer goods 5.3 per cent. Exports dropped 2 per cent.
Thailand is a regional hub for global car makers and a major producer of hard disk drives.
"Everybody is definitely delaying their imports (of consumer products) as most shopping malls are quiet," said Mr Nopporn Thepsitthar, the chairman of the National Shippers' Council.
"Nobody dares to place big orders."
National flag carrier Thai Airways International releases 2013 results on Tuesday and is expected to report a huge loss. It is likely to cite a slump in tourism as one of the factors after the protests began in November.
The Thai Hotel Association said this month that occupancy rates in the capital were hovering at around 50 per cent, well below the usual 80 per cent at this time of year.
That follows a record year for tourists in 2013 as a whole, with more than 26 million visitors. Tourism accounts for about a tenth of Thailand's gross domestic product.
Visitor numbers rose just 0.06 per cent in January from a year earlier, Tourism Authority of Thailand figures show.
Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc, which ranks fourth among hotel brands in Thailand, said this month that anti-government protests in Thailand "significantly" hurt its business in January.
In a small bit of good news for Ms Yingluck, the Election Commission approved a 712 million baht (S$28 million) fund to be drawn from the central budget for rice farmers, many of whom have been waiting months for payment and some of whom have committed suicide in desperation.
But the sum is a small fraction of the estimated 130 billion baht her government needs to pay to nearly a million farmers.
"If we don't get our money this week, we'll return to remind the prime minister about it," said one of the farmers' leaders after they protested outside an air force base where Yingluck was holding a cabinet meeting.
The rice subsidy scheme is one of several populist policies that swept Ms Yingluck to an election win in 2011 thanks to her rural support base in the north and northeast.
Anti-government protesters accuse former telecoms tycoon Thaksin of corruption and say that, prior to being ousted by the army in 2006, he used taxpayers' money for such populist policies to buy him the loyalty of millions.
Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban said protesters would target Shinawatra businesses again on Tuesday, a threat that sent stock prices tumbling last week.
SC Asset Corp, a property developer controlled by the Shinawatra family, lost almost 10 per cent in the second half of last week and mobile handset distributor M-Link Asia Corp, also with links to the family, lost 12 per cent.
However, SC Asset had recovered 0.7 per cent by 0845 GMT on Tuesday and M-Link nearly 6 per cent.
At least 20 people have been killed and more than 700 wounded since the protests began in November.
It is the worst political violence since 2010, when Thaksin's supporters paralysed Bangkok for weeks. More than 90 people were killed and 2,000 wounded during that unrest, which ended when Suthep, then a deputy premier, sent in troops.