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Published: Friday February 7, 2014 MYT 6:40:54 PM
Updated: Friday February 7, 2014 MYT 6:40:54 PM

Thai protesters seek to win over disgruntled rice farmers

By Apornrath Phoonphongphiphat and Panarat Thepgumpanat

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Anti-government protesters in Thailand's capital collected money for farmers on Friday, seeking to capitalise on discontent in rural areas at the state's failure to pay for rice bought under a controversial subsidy scheme.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was helped to power by a promise to buy rice from millions of farmers at a price that was way above the market. The government has been unable to sell the rice to fund the scheme and some farmers have been waiting for months to get paid.

The protest movement in Bangkok trying to oust Yingluck has found much of its support from middle-class, urban taxpayers appalled at what they see as corruption and waste in the rice scheme, but it is now trying to make common cause with the farmers.

"This is the way to get money from the rich to help the poor," said Akanat Promphan, the protesters' spokesman.

Rice farmers have until now been natural supporters of Yingluck and her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, who raised living standards in the countryside with populist policies such as cheap healthcare when he was prime minister from 2001.

But the former telecoms tycoon ran up against opposition from the royalist establishment and the army, which toppled him in 2006, setting off eight years of political turmoil broadly pitting Thaksin's rural supporters in the north and northeast against the Bangkok-based establishment and middle class.

Hundreds of farmers rallied at the Commerce Ministry but Prasit Boonchoey, head of the Thai Rice Farmers Association, denied they were backing anti-government protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban.

"This is a farmers' problem and we won't be joining Suthep's protest. We are just calling for what is ours, which is the money the government should pay us," he told Reuters.

The Northern Farmers Network, a group claiming 50,000 members, has besieged the provincial hall in Phichit province in the lower north and blocked highways around the region.

"There's no way this caretaker government can find the money for us," its chairman, Kittisak Rattanawaraha, told Reuters. "That's why we're pressing the government to get out."

Kittisak also said his network was not aligned with Suthep and had no plans to march on Bangkok, although he acknowledged that some farmers supported the protest movement.

ELECTION COMPLETE BY MID-MAY?

Thaksin fled into exile in 2008 to avoid being jailed for abuse of power but is widely seen as the power behind Yingluck. The latest unrest was sparked by her government's attempt in November to ram a political amnesty bill through parliament that would have let him come back home a free man.

Yingluck called a snap election to try to defuse the protests but the February 2 vote was disrupted in Bangkok and the south, strongholds of the opposition Democrat Party, which boycotted the poll and backs the protests.

Yingluck's Puea Thai Party seems certain to win but it is unclear when there will be enough lawmakers elected to give a quorum in parliament to re-elect her prime minister. Thailand will probably be stuck with a caretaker government, with only limited spending powers, for many weeks yet.

The Election Commission said on Friday it would suggest that the government begin the election process afresh in the 28 constituencies where there was no voting last Sunday, but it did not suggest any date for voting. It would talk to local officials about their ability to rerun disrupted votes.

"If we're lucky, the situation improves and there's no obstruction of elections, we can finish administering the election by mid-May. If we're unlucky, it might go on longer," Election Commissioner Somchai Srisutthiyakorn told Reuters.

Provisional figures from the Election Commission, which exclude nine provinces where there was no voting, put the turnout at 47.7 percent. It did not list results by party but said 16.7 percent ticked the "no" box, meaning they picked none of the candidates, and 12 percent of ballot papers were spoilt.

The protesters have blocked road junctions in Bangkok and forced ministries and state agencies to close their doors. But their numbers have dwindled and some offices are tentatively reopening, including the Finance Ministry on Friday.

National Security Council chief Paradorn Pattantabutr estimated that only 3,000 people were camped out now at the various protest sites.

A state of emergency was declared by the government ahead of the election. Arrest warrants have been issued against protest leaders and the body overseeing the emergency measures said they were also barred from leaving the country.

"When the right moment comes, we will arrest these leaders," Paradorn told Reuters. "But we guarantee we won't break up the protests."

(Additional reporting by Aukkarapon Niyomyat and Alisa Tang in Bangkok, and Andrew R.C. Marshall in Pichit; Writing by Alan Raybould; Editing by Paul Tait and Robert Birsel)

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