Thai Opposition Turns to Rice Farmers in Political Stalemate

Thailand’s opposition movement is reaching out to rice farmers to break a political stalemate as the nation awaits official election results, seeking to turn a source of support for Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

After months of demonstrations led by her political opponents, Yingluck now risks a backlash from farmers who say her government is months behind on subsidized rice payments at the heart of her Pheu Thai party’s populist platform. Yingluck also faces possible impeachment over the program, which the opposition alleges has benefited politicians more than rural communities.

The demonstrators led by former opposition lawmaker Suthep Thaugsuban are looking to capitalize on a potential crack in Yingluck’s rural support base, inviting farmers to speak on protest stages and raising money to help them file lawsuits against her government. Parties linked to Yingluck’s brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra who lives in self-imposed exile over corruption charges, have won the past five elections with the backing of populous farming regions.

“There is another rare window for Thailand’s grand realignment,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University. “If the Suthep movement reaches out to the farmers, who are already upset with Thaksin’s amnesty gambit and the government’s inability to pay them for the rice, then we could see a realignment that marginalizes the Thaksin camp.”

He said the last time there was such a window was in October when protests began against Yingluck’s efforts to pass an amnesty bill that would have voided most political crimes dating back to a 2006 military coup that ousted Thaksin. The bill angered many on either side of Thailand’s political divide.

Thaksin’s Populism

Yingluck’s support comes from the political machine built by her brother, who lives abroad to avoid a two year jail term for a corruption conviction. With policies such as cheap health care Thaksin created loyalty among rural voters, particularly in the north and northeast regions that account for about 70 percent of rice production. Suthep has said policies such as the rice program, which buys from farmers at above-market rates, are a form of vote buying that risks bankrupting the country.

While unpaid farmers have “legitimate grievances,” so far the protests appear to involve farmers from outside the Pheu Thai party’s heartland, said Kevin Hewison, director of the Asia Research Centre at Murdoch University in Perth. Even if support for the government diminishes in those areas, it is unlikely to shift to Suthep’s former party, the Democrats.

‘Political Shenanigans’

The Democrats are disliked in the north and northeast for authorizing a deadly crackdown on protesting Thaksin supporters in 2010, for which Suthep faces murder charges, Hewison said. Some opposition figures have suggested rural people lack sufficient education to vote responsibly.

“Those in the north and northeast will see the sudden embrace of farmers as political shenanigans and will probably dismiss it,” Hewison said. “It is very difficult for these rural voters to accept that they are buffaloes one day and heroes the next.”

Yingluck’s ability to pay the farmers has been hampered by her caretaker status, which began when she dissolved parliament in December. She faces limitations on spending and new borrowing, and protesters have pressured banks not to loan the government money for the rice program.

With the Democrats boycotting the Feb. 2 poll and Suthep’s protesters disrupting the vote in some areas and blocking candidates for registering in others, the results are incomplete. Yingluck will remain a caretaker leader while the government and Election Commission wrangle over how to legally hold needed by-elections.

Seeking Funds

The Ministry of Finance is in the process of seeking the funds to pay farmers, Finance Minister Kittiratt Na-Ranong told reporters today. “It will take a while to comply with legal processes. All farmers will then be paid.”

“The government is making payments to farmers who sold rice during October and November, and will pay those who sold rice during December to January,” Kittiratt said.

Winai Lamnoo, from the central province of Sing Buri, said he and other farmers submitted a letter to Thailand’s anti-corruption commission asking it to speed up its investigation into the program.

“We haven’t got any money since planting and harvesting and now we’re running out of money,” Winai said. “This policy is just an illusion. It doesn’t truly aim to help farmers.”

The anti-corruption commission said last month that it will investigate Yingluck’s role as overseer of the program after finding enough evidence to charge 15 people, including former Commerce Minister Boonsong Teriyapirom.

Farming Incomes

The government spent $21 billion buying the grain from the two crop years starting October 2011. The World Bank estimated the annual loss at 200 billion baht ($6.1 billion). The International Monetary Fund in November called for the program to be replaced, while Moody’s Investors Service said in June that losses from rice subsidies were credit negative for Thailand’s sovereign rating.

Yingluck has defended the policy as a success in lifting the incomes of farmers and said the program and payments were disrupted by a “group of people using undemocratic tactics to overthrow the government.”

Suthep said Yingluck is “blaming her inability to pay the rice farmers on everyone else.”

“The only way to address the farmers’ crisis is for the government to step down,” he told supporters Feb. 9. He is calling for Yingluck to be replaced with an unelected council.

Winning over Thaksin’s rural supporters, known as red shirts, “would require the anti-Thaksin coalition to recognize and accept the red shirts for who they are,” Thitinan of Chulalongkorn University said.

“They are the voices that used to be neglected, the voices that found an outlet under Thaksin, that found recognition, and these voices if incorporated into the fold could move Thailand forward,” he said.

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