BANGKOK - Tens of thousands of Thai rubber farmers protesting against a sharp drop in prices escalated protests across southern Thailand yesterday, cutting off access to large swathes of the region by blocking roads leading to tourist and commercial hubs.
Around 20,000 protesters are gathered at three main rally sites in the south, watched over by a heavy police presence.
Protest leaders yesterday threatened to shut down Surat Thani airport, a transit point for tourists travelling to Ko Samui, if their demands are not met.
Officials say they will not hesitate to use force if protesters move to block the airport.
"Under no circumstances will we accept it if they shut down the airport. This will ruin tourism not to mention the country's image," Deputy Prime Minister Pracha Promnok told reporters.
"If the protesters move to shut down Surat Thani airport, we will have no choice but to use force."
Farmers in the country's main southern rubber-producing region are demanding greater state support after a slowdown in demand from China and concerns over global economic growth sent prices tumbling to multi-year lows in mid-2012. China accounts for 35 percent of global rubber consumption.
Rubber farmers mainly support the opposition Democrat Party and have accused Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra of supporting rice farmers in her key constituencies through a rice-buying programme, while neglecting rubber farmers in the south of the country.