Thai rubber protesters target southern airport
Thai rubber farmers shout slogans as they block the highways during a demonstration near the airport in Surat Thani province on September 4, 2013. Thousands of Thai rubber farmers protested in the country's south on Wednesday, calling for help from the government in the face of slumping prices, in the latest challenge for Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
The decision to target Surat Thani airport -- used by some foreign tourists to travel to the popular island of Koh Samui -- appeared to mark an escalation in the action by the farmers.
Airport director Attaporn Nuang-udom said flights were still operating but passengers were forced to use alternative access roads.
"We have notified airlines to ask passengers to gather at a certain place and we'll send a bus to pick them up and drive them to the airport," he said.
Riot police with batons and shields stood guard near the airport, which the government has vowed to defend.
Protests by royalist activists in 2008 that paralysed Thailand's main airports dealt a heavy blow to the kingdom's economy.
"We will not allow an airport shutdown because it will affect tourism and confidence," Deputy Prime Minister Pracha Promnog told reporters in Bangkok.
Thailand is the world's top exporter of natural rubber and farmers say they have been hit hard by weak global markets.
"The rubber farmers' income is not enough to live," said one of the protest leaders, Manoon Uppla, 53.
"We cannot control people. Their feelings against the government are very strong," he said.
The government earlier declined demands to guarantee a rubber price of 120 baht ($3.7) per kilo -- about 50 percent higher than the current price on world markets.
Instead it proposed paying farmers 1,260 baht per rai (0.4 acres) of rubber plantation to help with production costs, along with funds to boost the efficiency of rubber processing -- an offer rejected by the protesters.
"They want us to guarantee the price at 92 baht per kilo," said Surat Thani governor Chatpong Chatraphuti, who took part in negotiations on Wednesday.
He said the government representative would take the proposal to Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to consider.
Thailand has been rocked by several mass protests in recent years, with both supporters and opponents of Yingluck's brother -- fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra -- taking to the streets.
In 2010 two-month demonstrations in Bangkok by the pro-Thaksin "Red Shirts" drew 100,000 protesters at their peak before being crushed in a military crackdown under a previous government.
More than 90 people, mostly civilians, were killed during the demonstrations and nearly 1,900 were injured in Thailand's worst political bloodshed in decades.
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