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Asia

Thai PM losing grip on northeastern stronghold

Thai Premier Yingluck Shinawatra faces growing opposition from northern business leaders and farmers who blame the government for rampant corruption and a botched rice price scheme.

Yingluck has spent the past few weeks among her supporters in northern Thailand. But she now faces growing opposition from an emerging group of former supporters. They are northeastern business leaders and farmers who feel betrayed by rampant corruption and a botched rice price scheme which has left millions of farmers demanding overdue payments.

But there is potentially more trouble ahead for the premier on the economic front. Thai exports could soon begin to decline due to a decision by the European Union to suspend trade talks over how to replace an expiring regime of special tariffs for Thai products, Yingluck wrote on her Facebook page on March 5, according to the Bangkok Post.

No more privileges

Previously, the EU's generalized system of preferences helped Thai products - such as canned pineapples, processed shrimp, and pet food - to grab the largest market share in Europe.

Thailand Premierministerin Yingluck Shinawatra 28.1.2014

Yingluck warned Thai exports could soon begin to decline

Thai exports to Europe, worth about nine billion USD per year, also included air-conditioners, lenses, motorcycles, rubber gloves and auto-parts, Yingluck said.

But the European Union is set to scrap trade privileges next year to countries such as Thailand deemed as "upper middle income" nations, Yingluck was quoted as saying. Declining exports would especially hurt the booming manufacturing sector in the drought-stricken northeast of the country, also known as Isaan.

Dwindling support

In Nakhon Ratchasima, Isaan's largest city, many people say they have turned against the government. Even impoverished construction workers and tuk-tuk drivers - who have benefited from minimum wage raises and cheaper health care - say they are angry.

"Oot", a construction worker, says he moonlights as a tuk-tuk driver to send his father 3000 baht (around 93 USD) a month to survive. "My father has no money because the government hasn't paid for his rice. How can we support the government now?," he asked.

Nevertheless, millions of people living in the countryside still back Yingluck and her exiled billionaire brother and former Thai premier Thaksin. Hundreds of so-called "Red Shirts" staged a boisterous rally in Nakhon Ratchisama two weeks ago. Some leaders even vowed to take up arms against any attempt by the military or judiciary to overthrow the elected government.

No 'Red Shirts' in sight

But after a three-day visit to the city, DW correspondent Christopher Johnson found no overt signs of any pro-govenment "red shirt" presence. Instead, the city center featured an anti-government protest stage and shops selling the paraphernalia and flags of Bangkok-based protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban. Even police officers said the Red Shirts were afraid to occupy streets in the city, located about 300 kilometers northeast of Bangkok.

"Most people in Nakhon Ratchisama, maybe 80 or 90 percent, don't want the Red Shirts to come here," said Thavison Lownanuruck, a former president of the city's Chamber of Commerce. "They are still popular in the rural areas, but not so much anymore in northeastern cities. There's been a big change. This is a big problem for Yingluck."

'No other choice'

On March 4, about 100 local business owners and executives met on the 8th floor of the Sri Pattana Hotel. "Do you want Red Shirts here in Nakhon Ratchasima?" asked Thavison. "No!" shouted the crowd, blowing whistles.

"This is very unusual," Thavison told DW. "Normally we businessmen don't want to take sides in politics, because it might hurt business. But now we feel we have no other choice. We can't take the corruption anymore."

Red Shirts protesters react during a rally at the Democracy Monument Saturday, March 12, 2011 in Bangkok, Thailand.

There were no pro-government "red shirts" in sight in Nakhon Ratchasima

The business leader says that people who formerly supported Thaksin's measures to boost the Isaan economy are now better informed about corruption. "Everything is about money now. It's all about corruption, corruption, corruption. How can businesses make money in such an environment?"

Thavison says the emergence of this opposition group in Isaan could reinvigorate a nationwide protest movement that began in November after the government tried to pass a controversial amnesty bill for hundreds of convicted criminals, including Thaksin.

The former Chamber of Commerce chief says they plan to send about 1000 people on buses to bolster the protest movement in Bangkok, which has been concentrated at Lumpini Park after Suthep agreed last weekend to dismantle stages at key intersections in the capital.