Thai rubber farmers protest over prices

Farmers have taken to the streets demanding that the government intervenes to save them from declining prices.

Rubber farmers in Thailand are taking over the country’s main transport arteries in a major challenge to the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra

Commodity prices have been falling around the world, with rubber one of the most dramatic: its price has halved in the past two years alone.  Thai rubber farmers have become victims of the boom-and-bust cycle.  They’re producing more rubber than the market needs and they can only sell it cheap.

In the context of Thailand’s deeply divided political landscape, it’s not too surprising that the protests have a partisan dimension.  They’re getting the most support in the south of the country, the rubber farming heartland and stronghold of the opposition Democrat Party.

The protesting farmers want the government to buy rubber from them at twice the current market price.  The government says it can’t afford that but is offering a compromise.  Rubber farmers point out that the government is already subsidizing rice farmers to the tune of 250 billion Thai baht or nearly 2% of GDP a year.  Some point out that rice farmers are mostly located in the ruling Puea Thai party’s bastions in the north.

Yingluck’s government’s been criticised for mishandling the rubber farmers’ problems.  The prime minister herself said her administration couldn’t do anything about the prices because Thailand didn’t produce very much compared to other countries.  Apparently she wasn’t aware that Thailand is actually the world’s biggest producer and exporter, providing about a third of the entire world supply.

The government held a crisis meeting on Monday, led by the Finance Minister  and Deputy Prime Minister Kittiratt Na-Ranong.  He offered to fly the protest leaders to Bangkok for negotiations but over the loudspeaker system at the demonstrations in Nakorn Si Thammarat province, organisers demanded he come to them.  They also threatened to bring the government down if their demands weren’t met.

Despite the belligerent words, the demonstrations themselves haven’t been as big as the organisers hoped, though on Tuesday there was word they were causing major disruptions in the popular tourist destination Krabi.

On a farm just outside Bangkok we met Niruj Yimcharoen who wasn’t interested in joining the protests.  He said he didn’t blame the government for his losses but admitted he is worried he won’t be able to provide for his family.

Talking to him and filming among the regularly spaced trunks of the shade of the rubber trees, politics and economics seemed very far away.  But experts warn that we haven’t yet seen what the full impact of tumbling prices on farms will have on the economies and politics around the region.

Follow Veronica Pedrosa on Twitter: @Vpedrosa