BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand's politically powerful rice farmers are becoming the new battleground between the country's junta and ousted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, with both trying to woo their support amid concerns of a flashpoint ahead of 2017 elections.
Yingluck on Friday attacked the military government's recent rescue packages worth at least $1.70 billion aimed at stabilizing low rice prices as it tries to maintain stability ahead of the general election.
"The military government's latest rice measures are no different from the rice pledging policy (of my government)," Yingluck told reporters outside a Bangkok court on Friday.
The military overthrew Yingluck in 2014, charging her government with corruption. She is currently in court fighting charges of criminal negligence over her government's rice subsidy scheme which paid farmers above-market rates rice.
Critics say the scheme, which helped sweep her to power in 2011, hemorrhaged billions of dollars. Last month authorities fined Yingluck 35 billion baht ($1.00 billion) over her government's rice scheme.
Thailand is the world's second-largest rice exporter.
Yingluck cannot run in the 2017 election because the junta banned her from politics for five years but that hasn't stopped her from making a series of cross-country trips that her team says are aimed at keeping her in the public eye.
For more than a decade, Thailand has been rocked by clashes between supporters of Yingluck and her brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 coup, and those who back the royalist-military establishment.
On Thursday, Yingluck visited rice farmers in the northeastern province of Ubon Ratchathani. Thailand's rice farmers have traditionally supported the Shinawatra family.
"Low rice prices are a truth and a burden for the people which should be a burden for, and the responsibility of, every government," Chayika Wongnapachant, Yingluck's niece and aide, wrote on Twitter, along with photographs of a tearful Yingluck next to farmers in Ubon Ratchathani.
Government spokesman Sansern Kaewkamnerd warned the former premier not to use farmers for political gain. "I believe people will be uncomfortable with the fact farmers' problems are being used as a political tool," Sansern said.
Manas Kitprasert, head of the Thai Rice Millers Association, resigned on Thursday after Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said this week that rice millers and politicians were colluding to drive down rice prices for political reasons.
Manas denied the accusations.
(Reporting by Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Aukkarapon Niyomyat; Writing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre; Editing by Michael Perry)