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Thai army chief wins rice farmers’ support for coup

Thailand’s army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha has made paying rice farmers his highest priority, and the move has secured farmers' support for the coup.

AYUTTHAYA: Thailand’s army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha has made paying rice farmers his highest priority.

Thousands have been waiting for months for payments promised by deposed Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

The failed state-run rice pledging scheme was a populist measure Ms Yingluck introduced that had helped bring her to power in 2011.

It was riddled with waste and corruption, and came to an end in February.

Now, the army's move to make payments over the next month has secured many farmers' support for the coup.

Lining up at the state's agriculture bank in Ayutthaya province, Central Thailand, Thai farmers are visibly happy to finally receive the money that was owed to them from the abandoned state rice subsidy scheme.

The scheme, initiated by the toppled Phue Thai Party, utilised state money to buy rice from farmers at 40 per cent above the market rate.

It ran into financial trouble late last year resulting in delayed payments to farmers.

The military government has made paying the rice farmers their highest priority, ordering a cash injection to state agricultural banks the day after the coup.

Paying the rice farmers is seen as a strategic victory for the military, winning them the support of Thailand's rural population, which was a key powerbase for the toppled government of Yingluck.

More than 800,000 Thai farmers are expected to receive US$2.8 billion within one month.

The Finance Ministry said about half will be covered by the government, while the remaining US$1.57 billion will have to be borrowed.

The president of the Thai Rice Farmers' Association, Wichien Puanglamjiek, welcomed the move by the military government.

Mr Wichien said: "We farmers are very happy that General Prayuth made the payment to rice farmers his first priority. Some farmers have already gone to Bangkok to thank him."

For many Thai rice farmers, the coup has had an immediate impact in alleviating their problems. While it is still unclear what the military will do next, some farmers see the coup period as an opportunity for the government to put in place legislation that could better secure their future.

For now, the farmers' plights have been resolved.

But Mr Wichien said with rising farming costs, they will still need state support.

He said farmers want the military to find an alternative to the Phue Thai Party's rice pledging scheme.

Mr Wichien elaborated: "Through the rice pledging scheme, farmers get paid 12,000 baht to 13,000 baht per tonne of rice. Without the scheme, farmers who harvested their crop during March and April only get 5,000 baht to 6,000 baht per ton of rice. And this is not worth the cost. How will farmers survive in the long run? Perhaps this is something General Prayuth and relevant state agencies need to look into."

The military may have found a short-term solution to win the support of the farmers, but it will need to find a more permanent solution to maintain their support during this period of uncertainty and political transition. 

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