The blockade came shortly after negotiations between representatives of the rubber growers and the government, represented by Deputy Prime Minister and Agriculture Minister Yugol Limlaengthong and PM's deputy secretary-general Suporn Atthawong, broke down.
The key issue is the price of rubber. The protesters want the government to guarantee a price of 120 baht per kilogramme for smoked rubber sheets. But the government is offering 80 baht, saying the protesters’ demand is impractical because the actual market price is about 72 baht.
Of course, the train and road blockade is illegal, unacceptable and unjustified. But such disruptive action has always been the norm for protesters in this country, because they think this is an effective way to force the government to pay attention to their grievances and to solve their problem - no matter the negative consequences to the other people.
More protests are expected from rubber planters in other parts of the country on Sept 3 – the so-called D-Day for a nationwide protest by the growers.
The government side has treated this particular protest in the South with deep suspicion because the region is regarded as the political stronghold of the opposition Democrat Party. Government people have accused the Democrats of politicising the issue for their own vested interest.
There are some grains of truth in the accusation, but what is undeniable and true is that rubber price has plummeted and the rubber growers are suffering. The protesters have accused the government of double standards, asking why rice farmers are supported by the government but not rubber growers. So far, the government has not come up with an answer.
Rubber and oil palm have been for many decades been the main economic crops of the southern region. But rubber trees are no longer confined to the South, with large areas planted in other regions in the last decade as the price kept rising, mainly fuelled by demand from China’s booming economy.
Price manipulation was also blamed for the unrealistic price surge. On one day in 2011, Jan 13, the rubber price in Surat Thani, a key trading centre, registered an all-time high of 152 baht/kg. On that day, 400 cars, mostly pickup trucks, worth about 300 million baht were sold in Surat Thani.
It remaned a boom time for rubber in 2011, when almost every investor in the South was breathing rubber. A few years before that, almost everyone who owned a dozen rai of empty land had jumped on the rubber bandwagon and turned the land into a rubber plantation.
Many fruit orchards in Rayong and Chanthaburi cleared out their trees and replaced them with rubber plants. Forests were encroached and cleared of forest cover to pave way for more rubber plantations.
Owning a rubber plantation was then the in-trend fad for politicians, businessmen and small landlords.
But what goes up must, inevitably, come down. The economic slowdown in the US, Europe and, lately, China has sapped the demand for rubber. As a result, the rubber price has nosedived steadily.
The good old days for rubber are gone. It seems rubber growers cannot accept this fact and are demanding the government still keep its election promise to guarantee rubber price at 120 baht/kg.
So, in a way rubber growers cannot be blamed for their unrealistic demand. The government, too, should share the blame for blindly supporting rubber cultivation and for promising a price guarantee that it now cannot deliver.