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Thai protests to intensify as rice farmers plan to close main roads

Protests in Thailand are set to intensify with rice farmers planning to close all main roads in the country on Thursday.

RATCHABURI, Central Thailand: Protests in Thailand are set to intensify with rice farmers planning to close all main roads in the country on Thursday.

Over 1,000 of them have blockaded a major highway in Ratchaburi province, about an hour from Bangkok.

They are demanding payment for the rice they sold to the government under its flagship rice pledging scheme.

Rice farmers from six provinces in central and western Thailand are causing major traffic congestion at Petchkasem Road, which is the main route connecting Bangkok and southern Thailand.

The road is just one of the many roads rice farmers are blocking, crippling traffic across the country.

Most of the farmers have been protesting on the streets for almost a week, demanding payment for their rice, as promised by the government's rice pledging scheme.

Some have not been paid for months, which means they cannot start the next round of harvesting.

Waraporn, a rice farmer from Petchaburi , said: "We are suffering because we want to invest in the next harvest, but we still haven't received any payment from the previous harvest.

“We are about to begin the next round of harvesting this month, but I still have not paid all the bills from the previous harvest, like for soil preparation, reaping, and the rice seeds."

Only a quarter of the farmers participating in the rice pledging scheme have reportedly been paid for their crops.

The delayed payment to the others is a result of lack of buyers.

The latest potential buyer to pull out is the Chinese government, citing the probe by Thailand's anti-corruption watchdog.

The country's political deadlock also means caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra lacks the credit to take out a fresh loan to finance the troubled scheme, now US$4.3 billion in debt.

Many farmers say that in hindsight, the scheme, which promised to pay US$457 per ton of rice -- or about 40 per cent above the global market price -- is excessive.

They now say they prefer to sell the rice in the market themselves at a cheaper price, rather than rely on the government.

Orawan, a rice farmer from Petchaburi, said: "I am happy if we can sell at 7,000 or 8,000 baht (US$213 or US$244) per ton because it is our rice. I will get the money no matter what because I produced the rice.

"That is better than where we are now, without any hope. And every time we ask the government (about payment), there is never a clear answer."

Many of those rice farmers are not fans of anti-government protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban.

However, some are ready to join him on the streets of Bangkok because they have lost faith in Prime Minister Yingluck’s government.

They say that if they do not get paid anytime soon, they will go to Bangkok to join the anti-government protesters.

With the political woes set to continue in the Thai capital, it remains to be seen when Yingluck's government will be able to find the money to finance its controversial rice pledging scheme. 

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