Protesters seeking to oust Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra surrounded government headquarters yesterday in response to police efforts to clear them from the streets, as farmers besieged her temporary office to demand payment for rice.
Thailand has been in crisis since November last year, when Bangkok’s middle class and the royalist establishment started a protest aimed at eradicating the influence of Yingluck’s brother Thaksin, a populist former prime minister ousted by the army in 2006 who is seen as the power behind her government.
Data published yesterday showed the economy grew just 0.6 percent in the fourth quarter from the third and, with the country likely to be without a fully functioning government for months, the Thai state planning board slashed its forecast for this year.
About 10,000 anti-government demonstrators surrounded Government House in Bangkok, taking back control of a road the police had cleared them from on Friday last week in the first real sign of a pushback by the authorities after months of protests.
These protesters view Yingluck as a proxy for Thaksin, who has lived in exile since 2008 rather than face a jail term for abuse of power handed down in absentia that year.
“We will use quick-dry cement to close the gates of Government House so that the Cabinet cannot go in to work,” said Nittitorn Lamrue of the Network of Students and People for Thailand’s Reform, aligned with the main protest movement.
It was a symbolic gesture, Yingluck having been forced to work elsewhere since last month.
The protests by rice farmers could turn out to be more damaging for Yingluck.
Rural voters swept her to power in 2011, when her Pheu Thai Party pledged to pay rice farmers way above market prices for their harvest. However, the program has run into funding problems and some farmers have not been paid for months.
Television showed farmers climbing over barbed wire fences and barriers at a Thai Ministry of Defense compound where Yingluck has set up temporary offices. They pushed back riot police, who retreated from confrontation, but did not enter the building.
“The prime minister is well off, but we are not. How are we going to feed our children? I want her to think about us,” one protester said.
Farmers’ representatives later met ministers, but when Thai Minister of Finance Kittirat Na Ranong came out to speak to the crowd he was pelted with plastic bottles.
The government hopes to sell about 1 million tonnes of rice through tenders this month to replenish its rice fund and is also seeking bank loans to help it pay the farmers.
The Government Savings Bank said on Sunday it had lent 5 billion baht (US$153 million) to the Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives, which runs the rice scheme.
It did not say what the money would be used for, but some depositors, apparently hearing on social media that it would be used for the rice payments and would therefore help the government, withdrew their money from the bank yesterday.