BANGKOK May 24 Thailand's military junta and
the finance ministry will meet on Monday to discuss how to pay
rice farmers over $2.5 billion owed under a failed subsidy
scheme run by the government the military overthrew on Thursday.
The Finance Ministry said in a statement on Saturday that
Air Chief Marshal Prajin Juntong would meet senior officials
from the ministry and from state banks to set out policy. Prajin
has taken charge of economic affairs under the military
Army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha, who heads the
government, addressed hundreds of civil servants at an army
facility on Friday, a day after the army seized power, and told
them that paying the farmers was "an urgent issue", according to
a source with knowledge of the meeting who requested anonymity
The state rice-buying scheme was one of the key policies in
the populist electoral platform that brought ousted premier
Yingluck Shinawatra to power in 2011. It was criticised by
opponents who played a role in driving her from office for
running up huge losses and being riddled with corruption.
Two weeks ago Thailand's anti-graft agency indicted Yingluck
for negligence for charges related to the rice-subsidy scheme,
one of several policies that won the support of Thailand's poor
for both Yingluck and her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, before
Thaksin, a billionaire telecommunications tycoon turned
politician, earned the loathing of the royal establishment and
was himself ousted in a military coup in 2006.
Yingluck's rice-buying scheme paid millions of rice farmers
way above the market price for their grain.
The scheme boosted rural incomes but made it impossible for
the government to sell the rice on the export market without
incurring big losses. Thailand was left sitting on millions of
tonnes of rice stockpiles.
Yingluck's administration had hoped limited supply from what
was then the world's top rice exporter would drive up global
prices and eventually allow international sales at a profit.
The gambit failed as India and Vietnam exported millions of
tonnes more rice to plug the gap. The Thai scheme ran into
funding problems that were exacerbated by the government's
inability to access funds from the state budget from December.
Facing a wave of anti-government protests, Yingluck
dissolved parliament in December, called an election and ran a
caretaker administration with limited fiscal powers.
Protesters disrupted the February vote, which was
subsequently annulled, leaving Thailand without a fully
functioning government until the army seized power on Thursday.
Prayuth suggested on Friday he would be able to tap the
state budget for funds to pay the farmers.
"The budget office reported that there is about 40 billion
baht ($1.23 billion) in the central budget that can be used to
pay farmers," the source quoted Prayuth as saying.
"Some are offering another 50 billion baht in loans,"
Prayuth added. "This should be sufficient to pay for farmers."
That was an apparent reference to possible loans from banks.
Commercial and state banks proved unwilling to lend to the
Yingluck administration, worried about the legitimacy of such
borrowing by a caretaker government and possible law suits.
At the end of April, farmers were still owed an estimated
90.5 billion baht. Some have been waiting since late last year
for rice sold to the state from the crop harvested from October.
Prayuth was reported as saying all farmers could be paid
within 20 to 25 days.
Air force chief Prajin, who was already chairman of national
flag carrier Thai Airways International, will oversee
the ministries of commerce, industry, agriculture, energy,
labour and transport as well as finance.
($1 = 32.5950 Thai Baht)
(Reporting by Khettiya Jittapong; Writing by Alan Raybould;
Editing by Simon Webb & Kim Coghill)