Thailand

Finding the grains of truth in Thailand’s spoiled-rice scandal

BY

Thailand’s simmering politics could be about to become even hotter as former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra faces her accusers over a scheme to provide cheap rice to poor farmers

There has long been something special among Thais about rice and female spirits, an essential nurturing attribute important to sustain the essence of life (khwan).

Every grain of rice is from the body of Mother Rice, the goddess Mae Posop (or Mae Khwan Khao), containing her own khwan. At every stage of rice production farmers have ritually propitiated the spirits to ensure wellbeing and an abundance of rice for the year.

These days Mother Rice must be at pains to make sense of the contradictions and malice over rice production and marketing relating to accusations against former elected prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s rice pledging scheme. The case against her, in an already predetermined outcome, is complex and confused as it is based simply on accusations.

These accusations, by the Democrat Party, started in 2012 in a case brought to the Office of the National Anti-Corruption Committee (NACC), a so-called independent body, though working as part of a royalist antidemocratic alliance. NACC in turn requested the ministries of finance and commerce to sue Yingluck and her respective ex-ministers for compensation, even though there had been no proven wrongdoing.

Street protests

All this fracas over the scheme culminated the following year in street protests by the establishment regime’s (amaat) ineptly named People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), consisting mostly of southerners from Democrat Party strongholds.

These antidemocratic interests conceived rice as a means to bring down Thailand’s first elected female prime minister and chase her back home to the north to face both criminal and civil court action. However, no one is actually clear on what legal grounds she is to be prosecuted, while the junta and its ‘independent bodies’ often contradict themselves.

Yingluck Shinawatre: justifications for bringing her down shown to be groundless. Gerd Seidel (Rob Irgendwer) CC By-3.0

It seems Yingluck had to be brought down, so the establishment (ultraroyalists, including the courts, independent bodies, the Democrat Party and the military) saw their opportunity in the rice pledging scheme, a pro-poor electoral policy to directly assist growers through price guarantees.

Interestingly, Yingluck was targeting the landless tenant rice growers, not the medium to larger landowning farmers—many of these absentee owners—whom the Democrat Party had generously assisted with earlier subsidies.

The justifications for dismissing Yingluck and her government have since been shown to be groundless. The initial accusation on the rice pledging scheme came from the royalist Thai Development Research Institute, a research institution which has shown itself to be skewed and biased and stacked with pro-junta friends.

There was no basis of fact in terms of any wrongdoing, especially in regard to accusations of corruption. The sign, wink or nod, had come from higher places that Yingluck must go, due to her increasing popularity among the masses. The rest was played out on the streets and engineered, coyly at first, through the Democrat Party on the sideline, and directly through its ex-deputy leader, Suthep Thaugsuban, and the PDRC.

How could facts be so twisted? It was only possible with the complete agreement of the establishment directly involving government officials (or correctly speaking, kha-ratcha-kan, literally ‘servants of the monarch’), the Democrat Party and the military, all working for the palace regime, not the people. The PDRC was the paramilitary of this conglomerate consisting of old establishment power and interests.

The submission of affidavits to Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha’s rice pledging investigation committee has now disclosed that after stocktaking, contrary to earlier accusations, no rice had gone missing from the government stores.

The affidavits also found nothing really wrong with the pro-poor policy as such or with paying farmers. But Yingluck had to confront these contradictions and a befuddling court process commencing in 2015, with proceedings starting on 15 January 2016.

Accusers

The state intends calling a number of accusers, including Democrat Party representatives, and some witnesses from Yingluck’s government. There have been suggestions that Prayut and the ultraroyalists want to take her finances—she is already on bail with her Baht 30 million bank account held—and make her personally liable for state financial loses and for paying the difference between market price and the actual government subsidy price paid to the farmers.

The accusers will also ensure—importantly—that Yingluck will never enter politics again. A guilty verdict in court would suffice in this case, and with her money seized she would not be able to finance future political ambitions.

This also happened to her brother Thaksin, first through trumped-up charges, a dodgy court verdict and then the seizure of his assets. But Thaksin was able to flee overseas. Now, although accusations against Yingluck are yet to be proven, this is irrelevant when it comes to the skewed use of Thai law under the current regime.

Prayut had earlier accused Yingluck of negligence of duty in regard to fictive missing rice, of corruption (unspecified), and of the poor quality of stored rice which was, he argued, inedible and could only be made into fertiliser. This rice would fetch a low-grade price well below what the government paid to farmers.

Accusations orchestrated at multiple levels brought Yingluck down. Even when she was caretaker prime minister after stepping down, she was not allowed to fulfil her policy objectives and electoral promises to pay farmers for the rice. Instead, she was clearly obstructed through the establishment’s tool, the National Election Commission, which stopped the banks acting on the payments to farmers.

Some in Thailand feel something was not right in the negative media coverage of the rice pledging scheme, which was set up to directly benefit ricegrowers by bypassing the traditionally powerful and influential middlemen

The PDRC simultaneously protested outside the Government Savings Bank and the Bank of Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives to block payment to farmers. The banks had a contract to pay farmers but needed approval each time. After coming to power, Prayut did not intend to pay the farmers until after 16 documented farmer suicides and a looming rural crisis.

An important factor was that Yingluck’s government had a bilateral arrangement to initially sell the government rice to China, though she was accused of dealings with a Chinese state private company. Even after she explained that the Chinese government used state-owned enterprises to undertake bilateral trading, as is usual in Asian socialist countries, this fell on deaf ears.

Rice auction

Now the authorities have auctioned the stored rice. In response to public alerts, they said they would, ironically, insert CCTV cameras to observe the transfer of the apparently degraded rice for the purpose intended, as fertiliser, as it was deemed unfit for human consumption. There is a likelihood that the rice, not as spoiled as made out, will be resold for a substantial profit by the middlemen.

Some in Thailand feel something was not right in the negative media coverage of the rice pledging scheme, which was set up to directly benefit ricegrowers by bypassing the traditionally powerful and influential middlemen, the millers and exporters.

They feel that the whole drama against Yingluck was because these wealthy middlemen, normal Democrat Party supporters in alliance with the politically motivated amaat regime, missed out on their historic practice of exploiting the peasants. Essentially, middlemen wanted to regain control of the rice marketing so they could continue buying cheap paddy from small, mostly tenanted rice farmers as usual.

The story of poor management, corruption and spoiled rice seems to have been concocted by establishment interests to enable them to buy the rice cheap and resell it as edible quality at auction.

No doubt the truth will be evident soon. To say that those who went along with the damaging accusations against the rice pledging scheme are fools is, unfortunately, an understatement. Most critical observers knew all along it was a political ploy to bring Yingluck into disrepute.

Mae Posop must be crying over the lies and deceits perpetuated by the establishment over rice.

Photo:
Rice straw being gathered after the harvest in Mae Wang District, Chiang Mai Province. The rice pledging scheme was a pro-poor electoral policy to directly assist growers through price guarantees. Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0

About James L. Taylor

Dr James L. Taylor is Adjunct Associate Professor, Anthropology & Development Studies, University of Adelaide.

Published:
17th February, 2016

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