Thai farmers call off airport protest

Assured of payment under a rice subsidy program, they cancel plans to block airport traffic with tractors

Farmers drive their tractors and other farming vehicles on a road in Ang Thong province towards Bangkok on Feb. 20, 2014.

Thai farmers called off a tractor drive to Bangkok's main airport to protest against not being paid under a rice subsidy scheme after an assurance they would get their money, a spokesman said, welcome news for Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

The rice subsidy program was among the populist policies pioneered by Yingluck's billionaire brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, a former prime minister central to a conflict that has divided Thais for years and triggered protests and sometimes violence that have paralyzed parts of the capital for weeks.

The farmers had said they wanted to make a symbolic protest, with no plans to block air traffic as in 2008, when protesters forced Bangkok's two main airports to close for more than a week.

Former member of parliament Chada Thaiseth, speaking for the farmers gathered in Ayutthaya province, said they had been assured of payment.

"The government will make payment next week. The farmers will head back now and will see whether the government will pay as promised," he told Reuters. "If it isn't delivered, we will return."

He said payments would be made via the state-owned Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives from next week.

Reuters Television estimated the number of protesting farmers at between 2,000 and 3,000 in a convoy of as many as 800 tractors, guaranteeing hours of road traffic chaos at least if the protest had gone ahead.

The rice program is critical to Yingluck's support base in the poorer north and northeast.

Generous subsidies for farmers were a centerpiece of the platform that swept her to power in 2011, but they have left Thailand with vast stockpiles of rice and a bill it is struggling to fund.

Opposition leaders say the scheme is riven with corruption.

An estimated at $6 billion a year in losses to taxpayers have fuelled middle-class, urban anger with Yingluck.

She and her government are being investigated by an anti-corruption panel for alleged irregularities in the subsidy scheme.

The farmers' anger over not being paid and the investigation into the subsidy program come as Yingluck is facing a campaign of street protests to oust her that has been going on for nearly four months.

Four protesters and a police officer were killed on Tuesday when police attempted to reclaim protest sites near government buildings that have been occupied for weeks.

The protesters want to stamp out what they see as the malign influence of Thaksin, regarded by many as the real power behind the government.

The protests are the latest installment of an eight-year political battle broadly pitting the Bangkok middle class and royalist establishment against the mostly rural supporters of Yingluck and Thaksin.

Demonstrators accuse Thaksin of nepotism and corruption and say that, prior to being toppled by the army in a 2006 coup, he used taxpayers' money for populist subsidies such as the rice scheme and easy loans that bought him the loyalty of millions.


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