Hundreds of angry Thai farmers breached razor-wire barricades outside the prime minister's temporary office on Monday to protest the government's delayed payments for last year's rice crops.
A flagship policy of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's government was to buy Thailand’s staple grain at above-market prices, aiming to woo votes from millions of farmers. But the program has accumulated losses of at least $4.46 billion and has been dogged by corruption allegations.
Government officials said payments were delayed because anti-government protests triggered parliament's dissolution in December. The finance minister said the government would issue payments starting Monday, through a state-owned bank.
The farmers' protest is one of the latest headaches for Yingluck, who has been forced to work at the temporary office since late last year after protesters surrounded her office in central Bangkok, demanding her resignation.
The demonstrators, who have protested for three months, mostly draw their support from the urban middle and upper class, and people in the south loyal to the opposition Democrat Party. They want Yingluck's elected government to make way for an interim, appointed government to implement what they say are necessary reforms to fight corruption.
The farmers used a truck to knock down razor wire, then shoved the guarding soldiers and attempted to surround the office compound in Bangkok's northern outskirts. They demanded that Yingluck meet them in person to answer when and if they will be paid, as the payments are several months overdue.
"We want the prime minister to come down to talk to us," Rawee Rungreuang, a farmer representative, told reporters outside the Office of the Permanent Secretary for Defense. "We have sympathized with the government for four months now. It's time for an answer."
Caretaker Finance Minister Kittiratt Na-Ranong said the government has paid $2 billion and owes $3.39 billion to the farmers. He said the government will start paying the rest of the money through the state-owned agricultural bank.
"Considering the (bank's) capacity in handling daily payments, it is expected that all payments will be made within six to eight weeks," Kittiratt told reporters at a news conference.
The farmers had previously blocked main highways in several parts of the country, and came to the capital this month to demand their payments.
Rice is Thailand's staple grain and one of its main exports. In hopes of boosting rice prices and increasing rural incomes, the government bought harvests from farmers at about twice the price prevailing in global markets. The program backfired when the Commerce Ministry had difficulties selling the grain overseas, as rival exporters such as Vietnam undercut it.
The populist program also became a target of the anti-government protesters, who claim they have hundreds of thousands of dollars to help the farmers sue the Yingluck administration.
The country's anti-corruption body is already investigating allegations that Yingluck, who is head of the national rice committee, was negligent in her role overseeing the program.
Labor Minister Chalerm Yubumrung said the Government House, where the prime minister works, will reopen this week, prompting resistance from the protesters who marched to surround the office and put up a small cement wall to seal some of its entrances.
At least 10 people have been killed and more than 600 injured in Thailand’s three-month-old political conflict.