Thai government transfers millions to rural poor

BANGKOK, Thailand, AP

With his corruption trial verdict imminent, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s government transferred 7.1 billion baht (US$157.8 million) for community development funds to more than 7,000 villages Wednesday.

Thaksin’s party won January general elections vowing to revive the economy and improve living standards, particularly among the rural poor. A key pledge was to provide interest-free loans to each of Thailand’s 77,000 villages.

“The first batch of 7,125 villages will get the money today,” Thaksin told reporters. The money will be distributed through branches of the Government Savings Bank.

Thaksin said money would be provided to the rest of villages within his government’s four-year term.

Thaksin’s future as prime minister hangs on whether the Constitutional Court upholds a December indictment against him by the National Counter Corruption Commission for allegedly concealing personal assets when he was deputy prime minister in 1997. A verdict is expected in early August.

If found guilty, Thaksin would be forced to stand down and be barred from public office for five years. He denies any wrongdoing, although he has conceded he may have made an “honest mistake” in his asset declarations, which are mandatory for all Cabinet ministers.

The government has been moving swiftly to make good on its election promises, such as providing cheap health care and a debt moratorium for small farmers.

Critics say Thaksin is keen to curry favor ahead of the verdict to increase popular pressure on the court to find him innocent.

Sathit Wongnongtoey, spokesman for the main opposition Democrat Party, criticized the government for giving big publicity to Wednesday’s announcement, which sets up funds in just 10 percent of villages.

To receive the funds, each village must convince a government committee that it will be able to manage the money properly and put it to good use. Thaksin’s government is keen to promote small businesses that use local products and know-how.