Farmers call time on Yingluck's rice farce

opinion February 14, 2014 00:00

By Thanong Khanthong

6,172 Viewed

The Yingluck government's rice-pledging scheme is set to go down in history as a complete failure, if not our worst and most corrupt subsidy programme. If justice is served, all of those involved in the scheme will go straight to jail to serve time.

The Yingluck government earmarked Bt500 billion (US$16 billion-$17 billion) for the rice scheme. This amount is equivalent to the standby credit that the IMF set aside for Thailand in 1997 when the country went bankrupt at the height of the baht crisis. But Yingluck Shinawatra, from the outset, was willing to risk this staggering amount of taxpayers’ money.
Thailand produces about 20 million tonnes of rice a year. Since the average rice price in normal times is $500 per tonne, this brings the total value of Thailand’s annual rice production to $10 billion. Yingluck chaired the National Rice Policy Committee, which oversees the broad policy of the rice subsidy programme. The manager of this rice-pledging scheme was former Commerce Minister Boonsong Teriyabhirom, who was succeeded by Niwatthamrong Boonsonghaisal. As Finance Minister, Kittiratt Na Ranong was the one who garnered the tax for this subsidy.
And now how would you judge the performance of these high-flying Cabinet members who, together, blew Bt500 billion in two crop seasons? 
If the rice-pledging scheme had been managed more prudently, with less corruption, it would have produced enough cash flow to continue the subsidy into the third year of the crop season. Again, Bt500 billion is a huge enough sum to provide the government with a cushion to keep the scheme humming. But the reality is very different. The scheme has spiralled out of control, with paddy from Myanmar and Cambodia joining the big “feast”. The same truckloads of paddy are going into the scheme, coming out, then going back in again, in a procession Thais liken to wien thien – pilgrims circling the temple. 
The budget for the scheme has gone through the roof and hit Bt770 billion. And corruption and mismanagement have been so rampant that its war chest of Bt500 billion has been sucked completely dry. So far the scheme has yielded a cash flow of Bt140 billion – not enough to keep the subsidy programme alive. This brings us to the current crisis the Yingluck government is facing – a shortfall of Bt130 billion owed to the farmers. 
When Yingluck dissolved Parliament on December 9, her administration had forgotten to set aside another budget to meet the shortfall from the rice scheme, after the Bt500 billion had been used up. Now as a caretaker government, it cannot legally borrow money to pay to the farmers, who have pledged the rice to millers and warehouses under government supervision. 
The farmers are suffering. They can’t get the money from the government. At least five farmers have committed suicide. Millions of rice-growers are being saddled with insurmountable debt. When farmers, who are the backbone of the country, go bankrupt, how will Thailand remain standing?
Instead of resigning to assume responsibility for its failure, Yingluck insists on sticking with her caretaker-premier status, hoping that a miracle will bring her back to power. No chance. The farmers are now staging a revolt. More than 3,000 have petitioned His Majesty the King for royal assistance. Hundreds of them have asked the Lawyers’ Society to sue the government on their behalf. Suthep Thaugsuban, leader of the Occupy Bangkok Movement, has received Bt24 million in donations from the public and handed it over to pay for the farmers’ legal fees and other court expenses. The farmers have been calling for the government to pay them the money it owes since October – more than two months before Yingluck’s House dissolution. But Yingluck and her ministers took no action. The farmers will travel down to Bangkok on Monday and join the protest rally to demand their money. They want this government out so that a new administration can step in to rectify their debt crisis. Yingluck and her Cabinet are now facing payback time.