PM Yingluck Shinawatra is being investigated by Thailand’s official anti-corruption commission in connection with the government’s controversial rice subsidy scheme.
The policy guarantees Thai rice farmers a much higher price than on the global market, but critics say it is too expensive and vulnerable to corruption.
The commission has already charged one minister, and is investigating others.
The news comes as Yingluck Shinawatra already faces intense pressure to resign.
Anti-government protesters have been marching through the capital, saying they will shut it down until their demands are met.
They accuse her government of being under the control of her brother, ousted former leader Thaksin Shinawatra.
They say they want an unelected “People’s Council” instead, to reform the electoral system.
The rice purchase scheme was launched in 2011, with the aim of boosting farmers’ incomes and helping alleviate rural poverty.
But it has resulted in the accumulation of huge stockpiles of rice, which the government cannot sell.
Yingluck Shinawatra is being investigated in connection with the government’s controversial rice subsidy scheme
The National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) says it is looking into Yingluck Shinawatra’s role in the scheme, and investigating her for possible negligence of duty.
“Those who oversaw the scheme knew there were losses but did not put a stop to it,” NACC spokeswoman Vicha Mahakhun told a news conference.
As prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra is nominally the head of the National Rice Committee.
Farmers have traditionally been some of Yingluck Shinawatra’s most ardent supporters. Her Phuea Thai Party was helped to power in 2011 by offering to buy rice at above the market price.
But the rice policy is thought to be costing Thailand around $10 billion a year – and the government has been unable to pay farmers for their most recent harvest, because a bond issue last year failed to raise sufficient funds.
Farmers are already talking about marching on Bangkok in protest.
In addition, if the NACC finds PM Yingluck Shinawatra guilty, she could be banned from politics, along with other ministers.
This would cast another shadow over the election she has called for next month.
The election is already proving contentious. The main opposition Democrat Party is boycotting the polls, which it fears will once again return the Shinawatra family to power.
Anti-government protesters have also rejected the elections, demanding electoral reforms.
Yingluck Shinawatra is currently moving around Bangkok to avoid the protesters blockading her office – although police said on Thursday that the crowds on the streets were gradually dwindling in number.
Thai protesters are blocking roads in parts of Bangkok in a bid to oust Yingluck Shinawatra’s government before snap elections on February 2.
The protesters have built barricades and occupied key road junctions.
The government has deployed 18,000 security personnel to maintain order.
The protesters, who began their campaign in November, want to replace the government of PM Yingluck Shinawatra with an unelected “People’s Council”.
They allege Yingluck Shinawatra is a proxy for her brother, former PM Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by the military in 2006 and is currently in self-imposed exile.
Protesters claim populist policies from Thaksin Shinawatra-allied parties have created a flawed democracy.
However, Thaksin Shinawatra-allied parties draw considerable support from rural voters and have a majority in the Thai parliament. Parties allied to Thaksin Shinawatra have won the last four elections.
The main opposition party is now boycotting the 2 February polls. Anti-government protesters have called on Yingluck Shinawatra to step down.
Yingluck Shinawatra has previously urged protesters to respect the democratic process and use the February elections to choose the next government.
At least eight people have been killed since the protests began late last year. On Saturday, at least seven people were injured when unknown gunmen opened fire on demonstrators at the main rally site in Bangkok.
Thai protesters are blocking roads in parts of Bangkok in a bid to oust Yingluck Shinawatra’s government
On Sunday night, an unidentified gunman attacked demonstrators at a protest site, shooting at least one man, officials said.
Police said a gunman also fired shots at the opposition party headquarters in a separate incident, although no casualties were reported.
Thousands are reported to have turned out for Monday’s demonstrations. Protesters say they intend to achieve what they are calling a shutdown of the capital.
Seven major intersections have been blocked by the anti-government protest movement, which has erected stages and piles of sandbags across the roads.
The government says it wants life to continue as normal through the shutdown and has ordered extra trains to run on the mass transit system and provided thousands of additional parking places outside the city centre.
Protesters also plan to surround key ministries and cut off their power supply in a bid to prevent them from functioning. About 150 schools have been told to close.
The protesters say they will remain in place for several days – but say they will not target public transport or the airports, which were closed for several days by anti-Thaksin protesters in 2008.
Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, who was formerly a senior opposition party politician, described the movement as “a people’s revolution”.
Yingluck Shinawatra was “no longer prime minister” in the eyes of the demonstrators, he told reporters on Monday.
The government says it is deploying 8,000 soldiers and 10,000 police to keep order.
The military – which has carried out several coups in the past – has refused to rule out another one. Some fear an escalation of violence could lead to a military intervention.
The government has so far worked to avoid confrontation with the protesters.
Yingluck Shianwatra had “ordered all police and military personnel to exercise utmost restraint and not to use all kinds of weapons in handling the protesters”, the deputy prime minister said.
The political unrest is the worst to hit Thailand since the protests of 2010, which were against a government led by the current opposition party and left more than 90 people dead, mostly civilian protesters.
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Former Thailand’s PM Abhisit Vejjajiva has been formally charged with murder in connection with a crackdown on demonstrators in 2010.
More than 90 people died in clashes during the 2010 protests.
Abhisit Vejjajiva, who leads the opposition Democrat Party, denied the charges and was granted bail.
The indictment came as protests against current PM Yingluck Shinawatra continued, and protesters briefly entered Government House.
Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, who was Abhisit Vejjajiva’s deputy in 2010, also faces charges but has asked the court to postpone his hearing.
Abhisit Vejjajiva and Suthep Thaugsuban were in power when thousands of supporters of ousted former leader Thaksin Shinawatra occupied parts of Bangkok. They authorized the army to clear the protesters.
Abhisit Vejjajiva has been formally charged with murder in connection with a crackdown on demonstrators in 2010
The charges relate to the shooting deaths of a 43-year-old taxi driver and a 14-year-old during the crackdown.
Meanwhile, on Thursday, protesters briefly broke into Government House, and later cut off the office’s power supply, reports said.
Anti-government protesters want Yingluck Shinawatra to resign and for her government to be replaced with an unelected “People’s Council”.
They say that Thaksin Shinawatra, who is also Yingluck Shinawatra’s brother, controls the ruling Pheu Thai party.
Abhisit Vejjajiva and other Democrat Party lawmakers resigned from parliament on Sunday so that they could join the protesters.
On Monday, Yingluck Shinawatra dissolved parliament and announced general elections for February 2nd, 2014, as 150,000 protesters surrounded Government House.
However, she has refused to resign before the elections.
Yingluck Shinwatra’s Pheu Thai party has a majority in parliament, and draws significant support from Thailand’s rural areas. The party is seen as well-placed to win February’s election.
However, protesters accuse it of using public funds irresponsibly to secure votes, including on a controversial rice subsidy scheme which hurt Thailand’s exports.
Thaksin Shinwatra is in self-imposed exile after he was overthrown in a military coup in 2006 and convicted of corruption.
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