* Protesters reject snap election, want government out now
* Their main aim is to eradicate influence of ex-PM Thaksin
* PM Yingluck says protests running out of steam
* Finance minister says disruption will cut GDP growth
By Apornrath Phoonphongphiphat and Andrew R.C. Marshall
BANGKOK, Jan 16 A Thai anti-corruption agency
said on Thursday it would investigate a money-guzzling rice
subsidy programme that has fuelled opposition to Prime Minister
Yingluck Shinawatra, as protesters marched through the capital
demanding she resign.
The unrest flared in November and escalated this week when
demonstrators led by former opposition politician Suthep
Thaugsuban occupied main intersections of the capital, Bangkok,
but the number of people camping out overnight at some of the
intersections appears to be dropping.
The turmoil is the latest episode in an eight-year conflict
that pits Bangkok's middle class and royalist establishment
against the mostly poorer, rural supporters of Yingluck and her
brother, former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.
Yingluck's Puea Thai Party was helped to power in 2011 by
offering to buy rice at way above the market price to help poor
Critics say the programme is riddled with corruption and - a
particular gripe of the more well-heeled protesters - that it
has cost taxpayers as much as 425 billion baht ($12.9 billion),
although that figure would drop if the government managed to
find buyers for the rice in state stockpiles.
"Those who oversaw the scheme knew there were losses but did
not put a stop to it," Vicha Mahakhun, of the National
Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC), told a news conference.
Yingluck is nominally head of the National Rice Committee
and could therefore eventually face charges.
The intervention price made Thai grain so expensive Thailand
lost its position as the world's top rice exporter, overtaken by
India and Vietnam.
Thaksin's rural and working-class support has ensured he or
his allies have won every election since 2001 and Puea Thai
seems certain to win an early election Yingluck has called for
The anti-government protesters have rejected the election.
They want to suspend what they say is a fragile democracy
destabilised by Thaksin, whom they accuse of nepotism and
corruption. Their goal is to eradicate the political influence
of his family by altering electoral arrangements, though in ways
they have not spelt out, along with other political reforms.
In a separate ruling, the NACC said it had grave doubts
about government-to-government deals announced by former
Commerce Minister Boonsong Teriyapirome. He and other officials
will now be summoned to explain themselves and the NACC will
then decide whether to file formal charges.
"The government rice deals did not happen because rice was
not shipped out of the country as they claimed," Vicha said.
Exporters raised the same question at the time in late 2012
and Boonsong was sacked by Yingluck in June 2013 when he failed
to answer public concerns about the deals and the cost of the
PROTESTS LOSING MOMENTUM?
Many ministries and state agencies have closed to avoid
violence, with staff working from home or back-up facilities.
The protesters are trying to paralyse ministries, marching
each day from camps they have set up at the seven intersections.
On Thursday they targeted revenue offices.
But along with the fewer numbers camping out overnight,
attempts to block traffic along other roads have become
"People see that the requests of the protesters are
impossible under the (law) and constitution," Yingluck told
Reuters. "That's why the number of supporters is getting less."
She was speaking as she left her temporary offices at a
Ministry of Defence facility in northern Bangkok, heading for a
"reform forum" at a nearby air force base.
"That's the best way for Thailand, to have a dialogue," she
said. "Whatever we don't agree on (and) the conflicts of the
past can be solved under the reform forum."
Army spokesman Winthai Suwaree said some troops were
patrolling protest areas or helping at medical tents.
The security forces have largely kept out of sight since the
blockades began this week, with the government keen to avoid any
The unrest is hurting the economy. Finance Minister Kittirat
Na Ranong said it might only grow 3 percent this year rather
than the forecast 4.5 percent because of disruption to
manufacturing, exports, consumption and tourism.
Somchai Sajjapong, head of the Finance Ministry's fiscal
policy office, said 2 trillion baht ($61 billion) of
infrastructure projects would not now start in the fiscal year
to September and other investment would also be delayed.
"These are two major factors for the growth forecast
downgrade ... If the Feb. 2 election is not held, growth could
be lower than 3 percent," he added.
Yingluck dissolved parliament in December in an attempt to
end the protests and she has set the election for Feb. 2.
On Wednesday she invited protest leaders and political
parties to discuss a proposal to push back election day, but her
opponents stayed away. The date has been maintained.