PM shoots down Suthep advice

PM shoots down Suthep advice

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has ruled out former deputy prime minister Suthep Thaugsuban's proposal that the government buy rubber from farmers at 60 baht a kilogramme, saying he would solve the problem systematically starting Tuesday afternoon.

"Our integrated approach involves taking action at upstream, midstream to downstream levels. We'll buy rubber at slightly above-market prices and process it. The output will be used by all ministries in their existing projects such as stadiums, pavements and roads. The cabinet will approve the plans on Tuesday."

He added the processing factories would be those receiving Board of Investment privileges for small and medium-sized enterprises.

Research and development studies on additional use of rubber, such as for swimming pools, medical dummies and gloves, will also be put into practice.   

Gen Prayut also ruled out talks with Mr Suthep for fear other stakeholders would feel deprived. He also declined to say he would prohibit rubber farmers from rallying.

"Let them rally. I'll keep doing my job. Just don't cause troubles," he said.

Earlier on Monday, Mr Suthep urged the prime minister to exercise his absolute power under Section 44 of the interim charter to solve the rubber price problem while telling planters to be sensible.

"I agree with farmers' proposals but they shouldn't expect the government to meet every demand," the former leader of the People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), which staged protests that culminated in the 2014 military coup, said on Monday.

The former deputy prime minister urged the planters to keep a clear head and be realistic about their proposals.

"When I was a deputy PM in the Abhisit Vejjajiva government, I successfully solved the price slump problem. But the situation then was more favourable, allowing us to push up the prices from 36-37 baht a kilogramme to 180 baht," said Mr Suthep, a 10-time Surat Thani Democrat MP.

He accused government officials of failing to take the prime minister's directives seriously but made clear he still had full confidence in Gen Prayut.

"The PM had ordered that the problem be solved but government officials have not taken it seriously.

"Yesterday, the prime minister told agencies again to come up with the amount of rubber they need for their projects or face disciplinary action. I don't understand why they had to wait until now to jump into action.

"Any minister who claimed the world economy was not conducive should ponder himself. Are we going to wait for world leaders to solve our problems?"

In any case, he urged the farmers to be compassionate given the prevailing financial and budget restraints.

"I'd like to propose that all sides — officials, farmers and the government — work together to find measures acceptable to them all.

"It wouldn't do for one side to rally while the other threatens to enforce the law."

The chairman of the Muan Maha Prachachon Foundation said it was important to set an appropriate price, adding the farmers could not survive at the current price of 33 baht a kg.

"I lean toward 60 baht and the government can start buying at this price, without having to wait for officials to come up with some figures.

"The government can tell related agencies to start buying without going through middlemen. It should also stipulate rubber use in local projects such as road construction."

Asked what to do if the private sector did not cooperate and would not use more rubber in road construction, Mr Suthep said the government need not wait for their help.

"This is not an elected government. It arose from special circumstances and this is the time to exercise its special power to help people.

"Aren't car tyre prices falling even though one of its component is rubber? Vendors, manufacturers and exporters must cooperate with the government"

The former MP reiterated his strong support for Gen Prayut.

"I believe in his sincerity in getting things done. But I don't believe in his teams. Those tasked with solving farmers' problems are not on the same page. None of them has the mandate to get things done like the PM.

"I can see the government has tried to solve problems systemically but time is a luxury now," he said.

For the farmers, Mr Suthep pleaded with them to be sensible.

"It's not that they can't assemble but more of a question whether they should.

"Apparently, the government has heard them and it should do more, perhaps by inviting representatives of farmers to a joint meeting, which I will gladly join.

Asked whether he would lead the move, Mr Suthep did not deny it outright.

"I'm not certain whether I would lead the move. Let's just say I'm ready to walk side by side with the people to find solutions to this problem."

He claimed to have talked with Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak and given him some ideas on Monday.

"Mr Somkid welcomed them and may have already prepare some measures such as setting a requirement for rubber use in road construction or intervening to prop the prices.

"I'd like the government to keep rubber in warehouses and not to compete with farmers in selling it. When it buys rubber from farmers, it must set up a special team so sell it.

A former southern MP, Mr Suthep has received strong support from southern rubber farmers, who in 2014 joined the PDRC's protests to topple the Yingluck Shinawatra government and pave the way for national reform before an election. They have since pledged support for the military government.

Rubber prices have plummeted steadily over the past two years. The price of raw sheets at the Songkhla market rose 32 satang to 34.35 baht a kilogramme on Monday, while that of ribbed smoked sheets rose 26 satang to 34.89 baht. Prices were above 100 baht a kg in 2011.

Global demand for natural rubber is slowing as the economy cools in China. Supplies are expanding after a decade-long rally in prices to a record in 2011 encouraged top producers like Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam to plant more trees. Output will exceed demand for two more years, with the surplus quadrupling in 2016, according to The Rubber Economist Ltd, a London-based industry researcher.

The export price from Thailand, the top producer, is down 23%. Global production is set to exceed demand by 411,000 tonnes next year and by 430,000 tonnes in 2017, compared with a surplus of 98,000 tonnes in 2015.

The government in November approved 13 billion baht to support farmers. Land owners and their workers will get a combined 1,500 baht a rai for plantations up to 15 rai. About 80% of growers own 25 rai or less. An additional 5 billion baht was approved in December for producers who pursue alternative employment.

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