BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand’s commerce minister was sacked on Sunday after coming under fire over a rice intervention scheme that resulted in huge losses to the budget and saw the country lose its place as the world’s top rice exporter.
In another move, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra added the post of defense minister to her duties, giving her more say in the affairs of the country’s powerful military, with which she has enjoyed an uneasy relationship since coming to power in 2011.
Yingluck’s brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, was ousted by the military in 2006 when he was prime minister. He now lives in self-imposed exile but is widely believed to direct the government.
Commerce Minister Boonsong Teriyapirom was replaced by Niwatthamrong Bunsongphaisan, a government spin doctor and former head of the now-defunct iTV news channel owned by the Shinawatra family. Niwatthamrong also took the post of deputy prime minister.
Kittirat Na Ranong remains finance minister
Nattawut Saikua, also active recently in defending the rice policy, kept his position as deputy commerce minister.
A one-time television star renowned for his fiery public speeches, Nattawut is a leader of the pro-government “red shirt” group and is popular with its lower-class members, including millions who make a living from rice and other crops.
The government has put its losses at around $4.5 billion for the first year of the rice-buying program from October 2011.
Its intervention was meant to help poor farmers, but it pushed the price of Thai rice way above that of India and Vietnam, which leapfrogged above it in the world exporters listing for 2012. Much of the rice bought remains in stockpiles.
Public concern increased after ratings agency Moody’s warned about the fiscal cost and the government finally decided to cut the intervention price by 20 percent from July to 12,000 baht per ton, which could help revive exports.
($1 = 31.17 Thai baht)
Reporting by Bangkok Bureau; Editing by Jeremy Laurence