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UPDATE 1-Thai Feb exports rise 2.4 pct y/y, but imports plunge

* Feb exports +2.4 pct y/y vs +0.4 pct in Reuters poll

* Feb imports -16.6 pct y/y vs -1.5 pct in poll

* Month brought $1.8 bln trade surplus, poll saw $1.4 bln deficit

* Anti-government protests hitting demand, consumption

BANGKOK, March 26 (Reuters) - Thai exports rose more than expected in February but imports plunged again, which might show how the country's long political crisis is hitting domestic demand.

The nearly 17 percent tumble in imports from a year earlier - a drop as big as January's - also could signal that exports are unlikely to climb strongly in recent months even if global demand improves.

Many of Thailand's imports are items such as auto-parts that are processed and re-exported. Exports account for more than 60 percent of Thai economic output, and officials hope that shipments - flat last year - can grow well in 2014, outweighing falls in consumption and investment rooted in the political crisis.

The Commerce Ministry said on Wednesday that exports rose 2.4 percent in February from a year earlier, compared with a Reuters poll forecast for 0.4 percent growth. In January, exports dropped 2 percent.

The poll projected a decline of only 1.5 percent in February imports. In spite of the far bigger drop, February produced a $1.8 billion trade surplus, compared with the poll's forecast of a $1.4 billion deficit. January had a deficit of $2.52 billion.

For the first two months of this year, exports were up 0.2 percent from a year earlier while imports were down 16 percent.

Among the biggest import falls in February were capital goods such as machines, down 5.6 percent, and autos and parts, off 6.4 percent.

Sarun Sunansathaporn, economist with Tisco Securities, said that while February exports improved, "they were not that strong so it is may be difficult to see exports driving growth that much this year. At best, they will just help support the economy from performing too badly."

The sharp fall in imports "will affect domestic consumption and investment," Sarun said, adding that he expects the economy to contract 1.2 percent from a year earlier in the first quarter, and expand 2.5 percent this year.

The central bank last week cut its 2014 growth estimate to 2.7 percent from around 3 percent. Growth in 2013 was 2.9 percent.

The Commerce Ministry confirmed on Wednesday it is sticking with its forecast that 2014 exports will rise 5 percent.

"Exports are expected to improve further in the second quarter in line with a recovery in the economies of major markets for Thai products," Srirat Rastapana, the ministry's permanent secretary told a news conference.

PROTEST RALLY PLANNED

The February trade data comes out at a time anti-government protesters are drumming up support for a rally this weekend to push for removal of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

A Feb. 2 election for the lower house of the legislature was disrupted by protesters and later annulled by a court. Analysts say it may take a long time until Thailand has a functioning administration.

Political tensions sent consumer confidence to a 12-year low last month and has hit consumption and tourism.

In a bid to revive growth, the central bank's monetary policy committee on March 12 cut the benchmark interest rate by 25 basis points to 2.0 percent.

As domestic demand has been weak, Thailand is hoping exports will drive the economy this year. The protests have not disrupted ports or factories.

Some Thai exporters are optimistic. Thai Union Frozen Products, the world's largest canned tuna producer, expects a better profit this year.

"The U.S. and European markets have recovered while tuna consumption is considered as one of daily necessities," TUF financial controller Wai Yat Paco Lee said.

On Monday, KCE Electronics said it expected a record net profit this year thanks to new orders and cost controls. "As about 95 percent of our products are for exports, there is very little impact from the political situation and the slowing domestic economy," it said.

In February, exports to the United States declined 2.3 percent from a year earlier (versus January's +0.4 percent), those to Europe grew 7.0 percent (+4.6 percent in January) and ones to Japan were up 2.7 percent (+1.8 percent the previous month). Shipments to China were down 0.8 percent, as they were in January.

(Additional reporting by Satawasin Staporncharnchai; Editing by Richard Borsuk)