Rice fund legal, says Somsak

Budget Bureau chief Somsak Chotrattanasiri on Friday affirmed the legality of the government’s plan to use 20 billion baht from the central budget to begin paying overdue debts to rice farmers, denying reports the sum was from a fund earlier earmarked for disaster relief.

The Feb 25 cabinet meeting approved the 20-billion-baht payment from this year’s central budget to pay the farmers, who have been owed money for months under the government’s rice-pledging scheme.

Mr Somsak said the sum would come from an advance payment to the Department of Foreign Trade (DFT), which is in charge of selling stockpiled grain.

The department will reimburse the money when it sells the rice.

The cabinet approval was in line with the DFT’s deal with the the Finance Ministry and would present no legal problems, Mr Somsak said. The money is also different from a separate 20-billion-baht fund that was set aside earlier for disaster relief, he added.

The Election Commission (EC) on Tuesday approved the government’s request to use 20 billion baht from the central budget to pay the rice debts on the condition that it reimburse the sum by the end of May. EC member Somchai Srisuttiyakorn posted a message on his Facebook page threatening legal action if authorities fail to repay the amount on time.

Mr Somsak said the Budget Bureau was waiting for the EC’s formal announcement of the budget approval.

Caretaker Commerce Minister Niwatthamrong Boonsongpaisarn said the funds could start being distributed to farmers by next week. The ministry is also waiting for the formal approval letter from the EC, he said.

After the DFT signs an agreement for the advance payment sum, the money will be transferred to the Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives (BAAC), which is responsible for paying farmers, within three days.

Meanwhile, a group of farmers on Friday demanded transparency in the distribution of rice payments, saying the money must not be allocated based on political affiliation.

Led by anti-government protest leader Luang Pu Buddha Issara, around 200 farmers from the Central Plains gathered at the BAAC and demanded clear guidelines on how the money will be paid out. Some have been waiting for money since 2012.

“We want the bank (BAAC) to make it clear that it will distribute money to farmers based on fairness and transparent procedures. We want to make sure that farmers who are not red-shirt and government supporters will also get money as well,” Luang Pu said.

BAAC deputy manager Adul Kanchanawat told the farmers he expected to be given 20 billion baht from the central budget and another 10 billion from the Commerce Ministry, which is in charge of selling the rice.

“Right now, we have no money in the bank. We need to wait for around two weeks to get the money. As soon as we have money, our office in each province will contact farmers to get money based on their position in the queue,” he said.

According to the bank, the current amount of unpaid debt to farmers is around 108 billion baht. It believed the debt will be repaid within six months if the Commerce Ministry can sell off all of its rice stocks.

The bank also set up a special donations account for the farmers, which is currently at 300 million baht. Luang Pu yesterday donated 100,000 baht to the account.

The group then moved to the Police Suppression Division where 40 farmers filed a corruption charge against caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and eight other people involved in the rice scheme. Police accepted the case for investigation. 

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