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Leaders of Thai rubber farmers threaten protests as prices slide

BANGKOK (Reuters) - More than 10,000 rubber farmers in Thailand, based mostly in the south, are preparing to launch protests against the government and demand it announce measures to help them counter a slump in prices to five-year lows, farmers’ leaders said on Wednesday.

These protest moves would involve farmers disrupting work at rubber factories in southern Thailand and marching to the capital Bangkok to submit a letter to the agriculture minister, they said.

“More than 10,000 (rubber) farmers will come for the protests,” Perk Lertwangpong, chairman of the Rubber Cooperative of Thailand grouping, told Reuters.

Rubber farmers in Thailand, the world’s biggest producer and exporter of the fibre, threatened to stage protests last month too, but have so far not acted upon it. Such protests would infringe the martial law that prevails in Thailand since the army took control of the country in May.

“Now, we don’t fear any law, as we have been suffering for such a long time with no help,” Perk said, adding the protests will be targeted at the factories who are depressing prices of the fibre, but will not involve blockage of roads.

Tokyo rubber futures prices, which set the global trend, fell on Wednesday to their lowest level since 2009, as concerns about oversupply and weak demand from top consumer China sparked heavy selling by speculators.

The price of Thai unsmoked rubber sheet (USS3), which farmers sell to factories, was at 45-49 baht per kg on Wednesday, a far cry from the record 180 Thai baht ($5.6) per kg farmers earned when benchmark smoked rubber sheet (RSS3) surged to an all-time high of $6.40 per kg in 2011.

Amnuay Yuthitam, another leader of a farmers’ network in 14 southern provinces, said: “We would plan the protest early next week to pressure the government to do something to support us.”

Farm minister Pitipong Pungboon Na Ayudhya could not be reached for comment.

The former populist government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra spent 22 billion baht building rubber stockpiles under state-funded price support programmes that included buying the commodity at above-market rates.

The programme mirrored a money-guzzling rice subsidy programme that cost taxpayers billions of dollars and fuelled opposition to the government from the establishment.

The new military government of Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha, however, has tried to step back from a culture of subsidies across the agricultural sector. Last week, it sold half of the 200,000 tonnes of the state rubber stocks bought from farmers, to cut storage costs.

Farmers are also blaming the government’s sale of rubber stocks for the declines in prices and want the sale of remaining stocks to be frozen.

Thailand produced 4.2 million tonnes of rubber in 2013, of which 3.7 million tonnes were exported.

Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman