The story of embattled human rights activist Sombat Boonngam-anong, aka Nuling or the Polka Dot Editor, is now reaching the international media. Currently being persecuted by the Thai state in what has become an absolute military dictatorship due to General Prayut invoking Section 44 of the Interim Charter, Sombat is facing approximately five charges, including the possibility of lèse majesté (Section 112).
General Prayut himself has hypothesized that Sombat’s latest venture, selling rice, is politically motivated, with the assumption appearing to be that former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra is funding his venture. An obsession with a plot is characteristic of this government due to its (hopefully unintentional) fascist tendencies, as explained here. However, it should be pointed out that Sombat used to host TV shows on the Peace TV channel, which used to be the UDD Channel, which was connected to Thaksin.
But, how is the concept of selling rice in itself subversive? What Sombat is doing is buying rice direct from farmers, bagging it in a small operation under the Polka Dot brand, and then selling it. What appears to be so rebellious is buying rice at 15,000 baht per ton, as under the Yingluck rice scheme of a guaranteed minimum price, and then running a form of social enterprise which cuts out the middle men, i.e., the rice mills and the bureaucracy (Ministry of Agriculture etc.) and selling direct to customers.
At the same time, bag deliverers are being paid 15 baht per bag above the going wage. The above-market price combined with an above-market delivery per bag payment are the two aspects of the venture which make it a social enterprise, therefore falling into the same category as the Doi Kham brand founded by His Majesty the King, rather than pure capitalism.
Colonel Sansern Keawkamnerd, the NCPO’s spokesman, has suggested Polka Dot Rice buy all the rice from all the farmers and therefore take over the management of the country’s main agricultural product. This appears to be an attempt at ridicule. But, why shouldn’t all Thailand’s rice be sold as a social enterprise using direct-to-customer marketing?
There are two main groups who may be not particularly happy with this idea. The first is the rice millers and silos owners, who have their own associations and have traditionally served as middle men. They are mainly ethnic Sino-Thais who had few opportunities when Thailand was still called Siam to find employment other than in state-mandated occupations, including rice trading. However, there would still be a need for their services – except that instead of the government paying for them to mill and store rice, the farmers’ associations would do it.
The other group which may be unhappy with this idea would be corrupt officials who make money from monitoring, supervising, and adding red tape to each movement and transaction involving the rice. However, is that not one of the problems that the dictatorship is trying to solve?
But, what about the fact that farmers’ associations are not market experts? The answer is for the farmers’ associations to hire domestic and international rice traders who know what they are doing. In other words, the workers hire the management instead of the management hiring the workers.
Gradually, you have a completely new economic model. Traditionally, at the bottom of the food chain are the farmers, the poorest ones being mainly Thai Lao people farming marginal land affected by all sorts of problems such as salination and over-use of pesticides. In this model, supply is dictated by the state. But, if the farmers operate cooperatively and democratically elect the leaders of their farmers associations - which many already do - who then directly buy in experts to manage the interface with buyers ranging from individuals to companies, thereby cutting out the state, you have the basis of economic democracy.
Some may state that this sounds like communism. However, it is not. A communist state would, via a central bureaucracy, dictate supply, manipulate demand and direct by committee all economic operations via a single party. The fact that the Thai state already controls the supply of rice is, in fact, an aspect of socialism - the command economy - which has sometimes been borrowed by forms of authoritarian government, particularly in developing countries. But, Thailand’s economy overall also has a large private sector, which is why it is a hybrid economy. And, introducing economic democracy in one sector will not change Thailand’s model from being a hybrid one overnight.
The role that Sombat has created for himself as a social entrepreneur is along the right lines. However, he is still essentially a manager hiring staff. And, the thinking is too small, which is why Colonel Sansern Keawkamnerd’s suggestion for Sombat to think bigger is, in fact, an excellent one. Obviously, there is no quick fix for Thailand’s rice problems. The agricultural sector poses socio-political and ethnic questions of concern to all Thais. But, the Colonel should advise General Prayut to start the process towards economic democracy via disintermediation – cutting out unnecessary bureaucracy – immediately.
The farmers and their representative associations should then directly hire talented people like Sombat to put together a management team in order to negotiate what bureaucracy remains and create a business plan. Then, the associations’ hired management, now responsible to the associations, who become the Board of Directors, function as an executive. This executive obtains loans from organizations such as the Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives and forges business partnerships. Through this process, the farmers’ associations can supervise the milling, storing, marketing and then selling of their rice, potentially via online platforms for mass sales such as alibaba.
Mistakes will be made, managers will be fired, and things will go wrong. So yes, it may need some regulation, and it should definitely involve independent auditing and state insurance against disasters. But at this stage in the game, there is nothing to lose from the military supporting an approach which allows farmers to take control of their own lives and futures.