BANGKOK (AP) – Thailand’s government began handing out 2,000 baht ($55) checks to millions of low-income workers Thursday to stimulate an economy battered by the global financial crisis.
As the first checks were distributed, thousands of demonstrators converged on Government House, the office of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, demanding the resignation of the government and rejecting the scheme as a “buy off.”
The demonstrators, followers of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, say Abhisit’s government came to power through illegal means. Their earlier demonstrations have proved peaceful.
The so-called “help-the-nation” dole-out scheme targets more than 9 million people earning less than 15,000 baht ($424) a month.
“I am confident it will stimulate the economy,” Abhisit told reporters ahead of the launch of the 18 billion baht ($509 million) program. “We are not encouraging extravagant spending. It’s a measure we hope will ease the burden on low-income people.”
Thailand has been hit with the worst economic downturn since the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Southeast Asia’s second largest economy grew 2.6 percent in 2008. But the economy’s performance this year is expected to contract 2.5 percent as the country’s crucial export sector slid four months straight.
The program is expected to increase economic growth by 0.2 percent, Finance Minister Korn Chatikavenij said Wednesday.
Anti-government protesters rejected the scheme Thursday, and demanded that Parliament be dissolved and new elections held. The demonstrators say the former pro-Thaksin government was illegally removed by court action backed by the powerful military.
“Abhisit used to say he hates populist policies. So what is he trying to do now? Is he trying to buy us off?” said a protest leader, Nattawut Sai-kua. “It is not going to work. We will protest until this illegitimate government is gone.”
Thailand was destabilized last year by months of protests by both supporters and opponents of Thaksin, whom his opponents accuse of corruption and abuse of power. He retains popularity among the country’s rural majority.–The Associated Press, AMBIKA AHUJA, Associated Press Writer