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A story to be taken with a grain of rice

A recent comment on the New Mandala blog said of the Pheu Thai rice-pledging scheme: ‘It stripped wealth out of Thailand to about 800 billion baht, on a criminally stupid rice scheme and maybe another similar amount to the Thaksin and cronies.’

OK, you have to excuse the ‘and cronies’ stuff.  The poor dears who make comments of this ilk seem obligated to use such flaming language.  I am beginning to suspect they have a programme on their computers that waves red flags if they fail to include ‘crony’ or ‘clone’ or ‘fugitive from justice’ or the like. 

The rice scheme may have been stupid but it was a policy announced by the party before the 2011 election and passed by parliament after it.  If it was stupid (legally stupid, that is), then its stupidity is comparable to that of the Common Agricultural Policy of the EU and the agricultural subsidies that are almost de rigueur in every developed economy.  These regularly use government money (or tax-payers’ money if you prefer) to overpay the producers of agricultural commodities who are often nowhere near as needy as Thai rice farmers.

And note that the money paid to farmers is not ‘stripped ... out of Thailand’.  Not unless farmers have suddenly started buying foreign goods, taking foreign holidays or parking their wealth in foreign bank accounts.

There are certainly Thais who do this, many of them self-proclaimed patriots (and if you’re an Election Commissioner it’s not even your own money that you ‘strip out’ on foreign junkets).  But to the best of my knowledge, your average farmer, on the odd occasion when she has money, tends to spend it locally.

So the ‘wealth’ is still in the Thai economy.  And I would bet it has been stimulating that economy in the same way that it is now to be stimulated by Deputy Prime Minister Pridiyathorn’s one-off non-populist give-away to the deserving poor.  (You only deserve it if you grow rice and not any other crop that the Department of Agricultural Extension might have persuaded you into.)  (But you don’t deserve it if you grow rice on someone else’s land; you then belong to the undeserving landless poor.) 

Now I am troubled by a vague memory of the government installed after the coup before last.  Wasn’t Pridiyathorn the ‘economy tsar’ then?  And isn’t it generally agreed, even by this junta, that the last coup was ‘wasted’ by the incompetence of the administration that the military put in place?  So why do we expect anything more ‘stimulating’ than ‘sustainable’ one-off mis-targeted freebies?

The criminality of the rice-pledging scheme is more questionable.  Note that the attempted prosecution of Yingluck was changed early on from ‘corruption’ to ‘failure to prevent corruption’.  So that ‘maybe’ claim of an extra 800 billion being siphoned off by The Source of All Evil seems to have found little legal traction. 

But even the charge of failing to prevent corruption is now stalled because corruption (apart from bog standard fiddling by millers on weight and moisture content, petty theft and smuggling) has not yet been proven, at least not corruption on a systematic scale. 

The resolutely pro-free market Thailand Development Research Institute, whose ‘report’ on corruption in the rice scheme was introduced as evidence in the aborted attempt to indict Yingluck, has quickly backpedalled on any claim that they have proof of corruption.  And if you look closely at the harrumphing by various worthies (including Pridiyathorn) over the past couple of years, you will find that when they blather about corruption, it really means that they believe the policy is wrong (which doesn’t make it criminal) and/or it invites corrupt abuse (which might be criminal but only once it is proved that corruption has occurred).

I honestly do not know if systematic corruption has occurred with the rice-pledging scheme.  But it is now getting on for half a year since the Yingluck administration was unconstitutionally ousted and compelling evidence of widespread corruption has still to surface.  My confidence that such evidence will at some point turn up is beginning to ebb. 

One thing the rice-pledging scheme has done is make organic rice-growing a lot harder.  Before farmers started to get inflated prices for their produce, organic growers could ask for premium prices for a safer, and hence superior product.  This was needed, since organic yields tend to be lower, especially in the first years after conversion from chemically-polluted production.  Now that everyone gets a premium price, organic growers can’t realistically expect another one just for them. 

Everyone and his mother has got agitated about corruption in the rice-pledging scheme, whether or not it exists.  But I don’t see the same level of concern about condemning Thai rice-eaters, and their overseas customers, to digesting pesticide residues.  But then it wouldn’t be so easy to pin the blame for that on Thaksin, would it?


About author:  Bangkokians with long memories may remember his irreverent column in The Nation in the 1980's. During his period of enforced silence since then, he was variously reported as participating in a 999-day meditation retreat in a hill-top monastery in Mae Hong Son (he gave up after 998 days), as the Special Rapporteur for Satire of the UN High Commission for Human Rights, and as understudy for the male lead in the long-running ‘Pussies -not the Musical' at the Neasden International Palladium (formerly Park Lane Empire).