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Much more needs to be done for rice farmers

Yes, they have been paid, but the threat to sustainable livelihood remains

The smiling faces of farmers as they received long-overdue payments for their rice are a positive sign. The money came just in time for them to celebrate tomorrow's National Rice and Thai Farmers Day. The National Council for Peace and Order has quickly taken action on an important issue that was causing widespread suffering. But this is just the first step, and the NCPO move is by no means a sustainable one.

The saga began when the Pheu Thai Party decided to launch its controversial rice scheme to lure support from the largest section of Thailand's "grass-roots" voters. Policymakers' promise that the government would "buy up every grain of rice" at Bt15,000 per tonne drew a barrage of criticism from prominent economists, who predicted fiscal disaster.

The government of Yingluck Shinawatra shrugged off the warnings, but they quickly proved true. The rice price-pledging policy drastically reduced Thai farmers' competitiveness. The government hit monetary roadblocks, and the scheme fell foul of the inevitable corruption.

Rather than bringing them "prosperity", as advertised, the scheme left more than half of the participating rice farmers - about 850,000 of them - unpaid. In desperate financial straits, many staged protests to demand the money owed. Then the political crisis intervened, further muddying an already controversial subsidy scheme. One thing remained clear though: the farmers had not been paid and the government's cash flow had run dry.

The rice scheme started off on the wrong foot, as a political tool for Pheu Thai. With politics involved from day one, the problems only intensified. The anti-government protesters chipped in to support the farmers with donations of money. Morally, it was the right thing to do, but there was also political motivation for much of the generosity.

The rice farmers were held hostage amid the political warfare.

When the Yingluck administration dissolved the House, it lost legislative control over the finances for the rice scheme, and its subsequent attempts to secure loans to meet obligations to farmers were obstructed by the anti-government protesters.

Of course, swift payment from the NCPO also had political motivation. But, since the farmers had been suffering for almost half a year, no one objected to the junta's action. Nevertheless, the problem in our agricultural sector is far from resolved. Policymakers have to realise that the key issue is not the price of rice, but how to support farmers in a sustainable way.

The challenge ahead if our farmers are to stay competitive in the coming Asean Economic Community is to draft well-rounded policies. And the last thing we need in our attempt to solve this long-standing problem is more political meddling.

The next government must learn from the "expensive" lesson provided by the Yingluck administration. Rice-farming methods need to be modernised to keep up with the competition. More importantly, the sector must be managed in a sustainable way. Farmers should be encouraged to end their dependence on expensive fertiliser and pesticide, which require substantial investment every time they plant a new crop. Modern methods should be brought in and blended with local agricultural wisdom. Relevant government agencies, especially the Rice Department, should cooperate on comprehensive approaches that prevent farmers from falling into a vicious cycle of debt.

There is much to be done if the next government wants to empower the rice farmers and help them survive in the long term. Once farmers gain more control over their destiny, Thailand will be a step closer to regaining its position as the world's rice bowl. Rather than achieving short-term goals, the challenge for policymakers should be to cultivate a sustainable rice-growing sector.


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