Thailand's Election Commission frees up some funds to pay rice farmers

Thai farmers shout slogans as they protest the government's repeatedly delayed payments for rice submitted to the pledging scheme at the government's temporary office in Bangkok on Feb. 17, 2014.

Thailand's Election Commission gave the government approval on Tuesday to use a small sum from the central budget — 712 million baht ($22 million) — to pay rice farmers who have been waiting months for payment from a state buying program.

The money will go a little way towards appeasing farmers protesting in Bangkok and their home provinces, but it is only a fraction of the 130 billion baht the government is estimated to owe nearly a million growers.

"The Election Commission has approved a 712 million baht fund to help farmers, as requested by the government," Somchai Srisuthiyakorn, an election official, said in a message posted on his Facebook page.

The government is now looking for additional funds.

"The cabinet has approved 20 billion baht from the central budget to help farmers under the rice scheme and we will send this to the election commission for approval while the government waits for a large loan that the finance ministry is currently working on," Commerce Minister Niwathamrong Boonsongpaisan told reporters after a cabinet meeting.

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Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra dissolved parliament in December and called an election for Feb. 2 but polling was disrupted by anti-government protesters and is unlikely to be completed for many weeks.

In the meantime, Yingluck heads a caretaker government with limited borrowing and spending powers. Election Commission approval is needed for certain spending and any new project that would bind the next full government is prohibited.

The government has found it hard to sell rice from stocks to replenish the buying fund and it has struggled to raise cash from other sources recently.

Niwathamrong also said China was still interested in buying rice from the government.

"China's ambassador to Thailand came to meet me today ... China wants to help Thailand and lessen the burden on Thai farmers. We believe the details of a deal for China to buy rice will be clarified in the next week or two," he said.

On Feb. 4 he said China had scrapped a deal to buy 400,000 tons because of an investigation by the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NAAC) into the transparency of various rice deals between Thailand and China.

Yingluck is due to appear at the NAAC on Thursday to face charges of dereliction of duty relating to the scheme.

($1 = 32.5550 Thai baht)

(Reporting by Pracha Hariraksapitak and Aukkarapon Niyomyat; Writing by Alan Raybould; Editing by Michael Perry)