Thailand unveils $514 million in rice loans as political tensions bubble
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A farmer loads paddy onto a truck as he harvests his rice field in Suphan Buri province, north of Bangkok, Thailand November 2, 2016. REUTERS/Chaiwat Subprasom
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BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand's rice committee announced new loan schemes worth $514 million on Monday to help rice growers struggling with falling prices as farmers of the grain become the new battleground between the junta and the opposition ahead of 2017 elections.
Tumbling rice prices have sent the ruling junta scrambling to roll out rescue packages as both the military government and the opposition try to woo politically powerful rice farmers ahead of the vote expected by late next year.
Farmers will receive 10,500 baht ($299) for every tonne of white paddy stored, Thailand's Minister of Commerce Apiradee Tantraporn told reporters.
Farmers who store Thai Pathum Thani fragrant rice will receive 11,300 baht ($322) per tonne.
"The overall budget is set at 18 billion baht ($514 million)," said Apiradee.
"This is to help relieve grievances farmers are facing while the main crop is being harvested," she said.
Prices in Thailand hit a 13-month low last week, hurting farmers in the world's second-largest rice exporter.
With the rice harvest season underway, the military government last week said it would offer loans worth $1.3 billion to jasmine rice farmers, on the condition that they store the grain for six months to slow down market supply.
Ousted former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, whose government was overthrown in a May 2014 military coup, attacked the military government's recent rescue packages on Friday and said the measures were no different to her government's rice policy.
The government in turn has warned Yingluck against politicizing the rice issue.
Yingluck currently faces criminal negligence charges in court over her administration's rice policy, which paid farmers well above market rates for their rice.
The scheme was popular with rice farmers in the agrarian northeast but cost billions of dollars in losses to state coffers.
Yingluck and her billionaire brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin, who was ousted in a 2006 coup, are loved by the rural and urban poor. But the Shinawatras are hated by the country's elite who accuse them of corruption, accusations they deny.
On Saturday Yingluck sold sacks of rice priced at 20 baht ($0.57) per kilogram at a shopping mall in Bangkok in her latest attempt to reach out to supporters.
"It was a really successful event," Chayika Wongnapachant, Yingluck's niece and aide, told Reuters.
"Rice prices have plummeted and that's the truth. Yingluck is merely trying to highlight the issue."
(Reporting by Amy Sawitta Lefevre, Pracha Hariraksapitak and Patpicha Tanakasempipat; Editing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Tom Hogue)
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