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Rice scheme's authors should be made to pay

If politicians are called to account for policies that fail spectacularly, we might see fewer "populist" promises

A political commentator on TV has suggested that the "owner" of the rice price-pledging scheme should be the one who repays the government's debt to the farmers. It was a half-joking dig at Thaksin Shinawatra, but perhaps it bears a nub worth serious consideration. Never in Thai history have politicians and decision-makers taken responsibility for damage caused by their failed policies.

The failure of the rice scheme has raised an interesting question: Should our political system prescribe clear punishment for government policies that harm the public on such a grand scale? To be fair, policies go wrong all the time. But those that the government was warned in advance would cause significant pain should be subjected to harsh assessment when they do.

What went wrong with the rice policy was not just poor implementation. Right from the start, the very concept of spending a huge among of tax money to "buy every grain of rice" at inflated prices was at best dubious. The government simply ignored the warnings and went on to implement the policy in what seemed a careless manner. When indications of massive corruption in the scheme emerged, the government waved those off too.

Rice farmers have marched to Bangkok to protest. Their representatives stormed out of Monday's talks with the caretaker government after receiving no clear answer on how it would pay them the money owed. They have now vowed to step up their protest because they have nothing to lose. Many are penniless and thus unable to plan another crop season.

To make matters worse, the damage caused by an ill-advised policy has been politicised. The fund-raising march spearheaded by anti-government protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban has helped to highlight the farmers' plight, but it was little more than a political gimmick designed to further embarrass the Yingluck Shinawatra government. Meanwhile government officials - now haunted by the overly ambitious and unrealistic rice scheme - have lost further credence by naming the ongoing protest as a key reason the rice payments are overdue.

The authorities in charge no doubt feel embarrassed by the policy's failure, but their discomfort is not enough to appease public indignation. The politicians who initiated this scheme in a blatant bid to burnish support at the polls must be held fully accountable for the fiscal and social ruin it has caused. Perhaps if they were made to pay for their ill judgement, other politicians in future will be less hasty to make populist promises that carry little chance of fulfilment.

Former Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun has said that, if the rice-pledging scheme stemmed from good intentions, it's conception suffered from poor logic. It was like a pawnshop paying Bt15,000 for a Bt10,000 wristwatch, he said. Unfortunately, unlike watches, rice rots and loses value very quickly.

In their attempts to win voter support, politicians have come up with increasingly controversial policies. The champions of such schemes might call these ideas "ambitious" or "visionary", but it is only recently that the voting public has begun learning of the inherent risks involved. The shock of the huge financial and legal peril looming over the government's proposal to borrow Bt2 trillion for a high-speed-train system hit home. Criticism was unbounded.

Thailand's desired "reforms" must cover a great deal of ground. One area that cannot be neglected is the need for measures to prevent politicians from initiating risky policies like the rice scheme.

We don't want any more lingering hangovers like the "Hopewell skeleton" - the concrete pillars erected for a Bangkok mass-transit line, still a testament to an epic political failure a decade on.


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