THAILAND - Armed men shot at rubber farmers, killing one person early Sunday morning, threatening to inflame tensions in an ongoing protest by farmers in southern Thailand to pressure the government to shore up falling rubber prices.
Over the past week, protesters have blockaded a major highway as well as the main railway track connecting Bangkok to Malaysia in a bid to extract from the government a price guarantee of 120 baht (S$4.80) per kg, which is about 50 per cent above global prices.
A politician from the opposition Democrat Party, which has a strong support base in the south, joined the protest, though the party has denied inciting the movement.
Thailand is the world's largest producer of rubber, but its farmers have been hit by sliding commodity prices in recent years as demand has dropped in tandem with slowing economies around the world.
The farmers had earlier threatened to ramp up the protest and rally across the country on Tuesday.
The threat, however, appeared to peter out at the end of Thursday after farmers in the north, north-east and central regions in Thailand agreed to a government counter- offer of 80 baht per kg of rubber as well as subsidies for rubber plantations.
But the protests in the south continued.
According to local media, unidentified gunmen opened fire on a protest site in the southern province of Nakhon Si Thammarat before dawn on Sunday, killing one man and injuring another.
The farmers have called the government to take responsibility for the incident. Deputy Prime Minister Pracha Promnok said that police were not responsible for the killing, according to state broadcaster MCOT.
The police, meanwhile, are offering a 100,000 baht reward for evidence leading to the arrest of the attackers.
The killing could harden positions and intensify protests, political analyst Panitan Wattanayagorn from Chulalongkorn University told The Straits Times.
"It depends on the government's response to this matter," he said, adding that a speedy investigation would help appease protesters.
Rubber exports earned 250 billion baht last year. An earlier price support scheme for rubber farmers ended in May, and the government is reluctant to extend aid in a way which would add to its existing stockpile of 200,000 tonnes of rubber.
A two-year-old price guarantee scheme for rice farmers has already cost the government about 600 billion baht as well as its position as the world's top rice exporter.
Critics have also attacked that scheme for bloating public debt, as well as filling state warehouses with more than 15 million tonnes of rice it cannot sell.
On Friday, Transport Minister Chadchart Sittipunt said the country's highway authority was studying the possibility of mixing rubber with asphalt on road surfaces in order to reduce the excess supply of the material.
According to the Bangkok Post, he was also considering using rubber in the construction of railway sleepers.
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