Panic as soaring prices lure rice bandits

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Rice farmers in Thailand are guarding paddyields and hurrying to harvest their crops after a theft last week which fuelled rumours that surging rice prices were attracting bandits.

Reports of widespread theft, although unsubstantiated by police, spread quickly after 220lb of premium-quality fragrant rice was stolen from a granary in Kalasin province, 300 miles north-east of Bangkok. "Villagers have set up teams and are patrolling the community," said Urit Poo-aob, a district chief in Kalasin.

The north-east is the key producing region for premium-grade fragrant rice in Thailand, the world's biggest rice exporter.

Thai rice prices have been rising since late last year when India banned exports of non-basmati rice to ensure it had enough for its own people. Vietnam, the number two rice exporter, has halted exports for two months in order to meet Filipino contracts.

As a result, the price of Thai premium fragrant rice has soared 30 per cent to nearly $900 (£450) a tonne. Thai 100 per cent B grade white rice has also risen 30 per cent, to $600 a tonne, fuelling rumours of rice bandits swooping on unguarded paddy fields at night.

Some farmers in the white rice growing province of Sing Buri have slept in their paddyfields after rumours spread of a 1,000kg raid. However, police have received no formal complaint. "There are many rumours, but no one has come forward to tell us that they were robbed," police said.

Nevertheless, the rumours have been strong enough to prompt many farmers to harvest their crops as quickly as possible. "Most of the rice grown in Suphan Buri has already been harvested. It's around 10 to 20 days earlier than expected," said an agricultural official.