Rubber protesters gather near Thai airport

Farmers not impressed with govt Bt22-billion (S$880 million) subsidy package

Protesting rubber farmers in Surat Thani yesterday blocked a main road after a government decision not to accept their demand for it to intervene in the price of raw rubber sheets, although the Cabinet had earlier in the day granted a Bt1,260-per-rai subsidy to them.

After blocking Route 41, a large number of them headed towards the airport, which was guarded by about 100 anti-riot police. They later walked past the airport and converged at a location not far away, as of press time yesterday evening.

The Bt22-billion budget cleared by the Cabinet yesterday will be spent on a Bt1,260 per-rai subsidy for those owning no more than 10 rai (1.6 hectares) of plantations each year, but their demand that the government buy rubber sheets from them at Bt100 to Bt120 per kilogram, up from the average current price of Bt78.13, was not met.

The farmers rallying in Surat Thani, the largest group of protesters, reacted quickly upon learning of the Cabinet decision reached in the afternoon. They immediately moved to block a key route to the South, while those holding parallel rallies in Nakhon Si Thammarat, where the second-largest protest is being held, and in Chumphon, Prachuap Khiri Khan, and Krabi are expected to follow suit.

According to Daily News, the group of people at the Surat Thani rally site who blocked Route 41 are those travelling from Songkhla's Thepha district, who arrived and started blocking the route. This prompted about 10,000 protesters also to join in the blockade, which resulted in heavy traffic congestion over 5 kilometres.

There are about 20,000 protesters gathering at five main rally sites in seven southern provinces, while about 500 rubber planters are converging on the eastern province of Rayong and blocking a main road. Rubber planters and tappers elsewhere, who are friendlier to the Pheu Thai-led government, had earlier called off their protests, or reduced the size of their rallies even before the Cabinet yesterday officially approved Bt22 billion for subsidy.

The protesters in Surat Thani had earlier promised not to blockade roads as a measure to pressure the government, but protest leaders said later that the promise would be kept only if the government successfully solved the problem.

Rubber farmers from Satun, Trang and Songkhla were travelling to join the rallies even before the Cabinet approval of the Bt22-billion subsidy. The prices of raw rubber sheets, as cited at various rallies, vary from Bt101 to Bt120 per kilo. Onstage statements promising not to block roads were made at several venues, if the government came up with measures that "would be accepted by most rubber farmers".

Police in Uttaradit in the lower North are on standby to handle a possible rally by local rubber growers who are converging along Route 11, although a network of growers in 17 northern provinces had unofficially announced an end to their planned protests.

A deputy secretary-general to the prime minister, Thawat Bunfueng, and senior officials will meet with representatives of rubber farmers today at two venues in Bangkok. Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has assigned Deputy Prime Minister Kittiratt Na-Ranong to head the government delegation.

It also noted that the political position of the ruling coalition had weakened following the May election, meaning that the Government was likely to continue encountering difficulties in implementing "far-reaching and much delayed" revenue-enhancing reforms such as the GST.