Thailand declares state of emergency in Bangkok

Thai authorities declared a 60-day state of emergency in Bangkok that will begin Wednesday. It comes amid growing discontent among pro-government farmers.

Athit Perawongsa/Reuters
Thailand's Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra gestures while speaking to reporters following following the declaration of a state of emergency in Bangkok January 21, 2014. The Thai government on Tuesday declared a 60-day state of emergency to start on Wednesday, saying it wanted to prevent any escalation in more than two months of protests aimed at forcing Ms. Yingluck from power.

The Thai government has declared a state of emergency for Bangkok and nearby provinces in response to ongoing antigovernment protests that have turned violent in recent days.

The state of emergency begins Wednesday and will last for 60 days, Deputy Prime Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul told a news conference today. The decree is expected to give security officials power to impose curfews, ban political gatherings of more than five people, censor media, and detain suspects without charge.

Protest leaders vowed to resist the measure and continue their attempted shutdown of the Thai capital until Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is removed from office. 

The decree comes at the same time as the staunch support from Thai farmers for the embattled prime minister showed its first signs of waning. Hundreds of thousands of rural rice farmers – usually among Ms. Yingluck's key supporters – vowed yesterday to march on Bangkok to demand her resignation.

The farmers from several central and northern provinces in Thailand have turned on the government over its flagship rice-buying program. Under the program, launched in 2011, the government agreed to buy rice at 50 percent above market prices to boost rural incomes. It was a hugely popular campaign pledge that helped Yingluck secure a landslide election victory that same year.

Waning support from key supporters

Now the government can’t sell the stockpiled rice fast enough to fund the subsidy; thousands of farmers have not been paid for harvests since October. Rival rice exporters such as India and Vietnam have increased production to undercut Thailand, formerly the world’s number one rice exporter.

"Farmers are desperately hoping that the government can pay the pledged cost to them soon, as they have many liabilities piling up such as the cost of harvesting their rice, driving their trucks and feeding their families," Wichian Phuanglamchiak, president of the Thai Farmers Association told the Nation newspaper last week. 

On Friday hundreds of farmers marched on town halls and government banks in several provinces, carrying placards calling for Yingluck to resign. On Monday, they blocked traffic on major roads including an arterial highway between central and northern regions. 

Prom Boonmachoey, leader of a farmers’ group in central Suphan Buri province, says the group is consulting lawyers about filing a lawsuit against the government. If there is no way for the farmers to get compensation, they would “seriously consider” joining anti-government protests in Bangkok, Mr. Prom says.

The farmers have given the government a deadline of Jan. 25 to come up with the money.

Last week the government sold bonds worth 32.6 billion baht ($990 million) to use for repaying rice farmers. The money is in addition to 37 billion baht in bonds guaranteed by the Finance Ministry and sold last November. However, together this amount makes up just over half the 130 billion baht ($3.9 billion) figure said to be owed to the farmers.  

To add to the government’s woes, Thailand anti-corruption agency announced last week that it had begun a probe into alleged corruption in the rice scheme, which could implicate Yingluck as head of the National Rice Committee. 

A revolt by Thailand’s farmers comes as Yingluck struggles to contain political unrest in Bangkok. Protesters have besieged the capital with rallies that have disrupted traffic and forced several ministries to close. While the number of demonstrators appears to have declined over the last week, there’s been an increase in violence. Several grenade attacks at protest sites have killed one, injured 70, and raised fears of further bloodshed. 

Boost to the opposition?

The rice farmers, who are usually aligned with the government, said joining the protest in Bangkok would not constitute them switching political sides to support protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban’s movement.

But some analysts suggest mass action by rice farmers could help protesters to discredit Yingluck and her influential brother, the self-exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.

“It remains to be seen how the [government] will handle this situation but it could change things significantly,” says Voranai Vanijaka, a Thai political commentator.
 
Suthep promised Tuesday at a rally in Bangkok to compensate farmers for their losses under the rice scheme, but only if they backed his calls for an unelected council to replace the government.

Suthep claims this council is needed to introduce electoral reform to “re-boot” democracy before a general election can be held. The proposal has proven controversial as it overrides Yingluck's electoral mandate. Suthep contested the 2011 election as the deputy leader of a party that polled a distant second. His bid to enlist the support of rice farmers flies in the face of his constant criticism of Yingluck's pandering to the rural poor with subsidies and development aid. 

If the election scheduled for Feb. 2 goes ahead as planned, Yingluck’s party enjoys enough popular support that it is still highly likely to win, even without the support of the discontented rice farmers.

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