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BANGKOK – Just weeks after Thailand's military government imposed an unprecedented $1 billion fine against an ousted prime minister for her handling of an ill-fated rice subsidy program that racked up huge losses, the junta did something else extraordinary: It announced a major assistance plan of its own.
The $1.5 billion effort, which helps struggling rice farmers in part by guaranteeing prices well above market rates, is ironic given its similarities to the larger subsidy program for which the junta has castigated ex-premier Yingluck Shinawatra.
But the current government may have had little choice but to act. Global prices for the grain have plummeted to their lowest in nearly a decade, severely weakening an industry crucial to Thailand's economic well-being.
Some analysts say the about-face is also intended to stave off potential unrest during the sensitive, year-long mourning period following the death last month of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, and to win over some of the politically powerful farmers who make up 40 percent of the population. The rice-growing north is a traditional stronghold of Yingluck and her allies.
The junta has begun to realize "they simply cannot ignore the plight of the farmers anymore, especially (if) they wish to be in power for the long term," said Puangthong R. Pawakapan, an associate professor at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the former army chief who spearheaded the coup two years ago, has vowed to restore civilian rule through elections in late 2017. There is speculation he could stay on as premier, and in any case, the nation's new constitution guarantees the military a strong hand in politics for years to come.
The putsch was the culmination of a decade of political turmoil that boiled over after the army ousted Yingluck's brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, in a 2006 coup. The conflict, in broad terms, is part of a societal schism that pits the majority rural poor against an urban-based elite establishment supported by the army and staunch royalists who see Yingluck's family as a corrupt threat to the traditional structures of power.
In 2011, Yingluck's Pheu Thai Party won elections in part by promising to pay farmers nearly double the price that rice then fetched on the world market, a move critics equated to vote-buying.
The hope was that by stockpiling rice, the government could drive up world prices. But producers such as Vietnam took up the slack, bumping Thailand from its spot as the world's leading rice exporter. The government lost billions of dollars and about 8 million tons of the rice it purchased sits unsold in warehouses.
Yingluck told The Associated Press that "in principle, there is no difference" between the junta's effort and that of her government, an assessment some analysts agree with.
The junta's plan is similar to Yingluck's in that it is offering artificially high prices for rice, dispersing large sums to farmers and encouraging them to keep the grain off market in hopes of stimulating prices. But Jitti Mongkolnchaiarunya, dean of Thammasat University's School of Development Studies, said the latest plan is less risky because its scope is smaller, its price ceilings lower, and rice farmers — not the government — will be responsible for storage.
Yingluck's administration, for example, offered 15,000 to 20,000 baht ($421 to $561) per ton of rice, compared to 10,500 to 13,000 ($294 to $365) offered by Prayuth's government.
None of that, though, guarantees the effort will be a success, Jitti said, because global supply and demand cannot be controlled. Prayuth has said he wants to wean farmers off populist policies and has warned government aid is "not limitless."
"The government must have ... the courage to deal with these issues," Jitti said, "because it's all related to politics. Everything is politics."
Indeed, shortly after Prayuth's government announced its plans, Yingluck bought 10 tons of rice from farmers and made a public show of helping to sell it — at cost — outside a Bangkok mall. Last week, she did it again at another mall just southeast of Bangkok in Samut Prakan.
It was a brazen move for Yingluck, who could be sentenced to 10 years in prison if convicted of criminal negligence charges related to her government's rice subsidy. But in a country where free speech is suppressed and bans on large political gatherings have almost completely silenced the opposition, helping farmers sell rice offered a rare means of speaking out.
"I think she intended to challenge the junta," Puangthong said.
Prayuth and his supporters have condemned such moves as publicity stunts, though Yingluck claims she was only doing it to help farmers.
One person who showed up to buy rice in Samut Prakan, Samruey Thappan, said she was doing it not only "to help farmers, but to help Yingluck because she's a good person who is being harassed."
Farmers say they need assistance, no matter who's offering it.
Political fights "have no relevance to us," said Weerachai Wongbut, a 59-year-old who traveled to Bangkok from the northern province of Uttaradit to sell rice at a market stall this month. "We just need help."