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Why isn't anyone taking up the PM's challenge?

Someone should take up the challenge by Premier Yingluck Shinawatra: go out and ask farmers whether their lives are better off because of the controversial rice price pledging scheme.

The prime minister doesn't usually speak out. It was quite a surprise for me, therefore, to read an "exclusive interview" she gave to Thai Rath daily to mark the first anniversary of her assuming office.

PM Yingluck hasn't really made a big fuss over her being the country's chief executive for over 365 days now. She didn't offer her own assessment to the public. She made no public appearance to answer questions about her performance so far. She was spared a House censure debate by the opposition, which has postponed the motion indefinitely. And her popularity hasn't suffered - not if you consider all the recent polls reasonably accurate, that is.

It may seem strange, but Thailand's first female premier isn't even expected to respond to the most controversial policy issue so far. That's why it is highly significant that she gave her clearest statement yet in an interview with Thailand's biggest mass-circulation paper on the issue, without so much as hitting the headlines - although it adds some very new elements to the issue.

Her boldest statement was: "The government policy on this issue never said it would make a profit. It's a policy that is in itself a loss, but it will boost farmers' income."

Therefore, she insisted, even if the pledging policy suffered a loss, "it should be acceptable" because it will enrich farmers and thereby boost local consumption.

But she also admitted that some missteps might have been made. "Nobody can do everything right," she said, adding that neither the prime minister herself nor Cabinet members could oversee the whole operation "because many factors are involved in the process, all the way from rice farmers to rice mills".

Then came the real challenge from her: Why hasn't anybody gone out to the rice fields to ask farmers whether their livelihood has improved as a result of the policy? Why is it that only some groups of people have been asked their opinion on the issue?

The premier admitted that the current massive rice stock has depressed prices. "But that's because we only launched the scheme a few months ago. Wait eight months from now, we will see the world rice price rise much higher than it is now," she claimed.

But isn't Thailand losing its top position as rice exporter? If you are surprised at that, the premier isn't. She said Thai farmers could at most plant two paddy crops a year, while countries like Vietnam and India have been growing more rice. "So naturally we can't do anything about it. They have overtaken Thailand in the world market as a matter of course," she said.

I am sure a good number of observers who have taken up the controversy to criticise the government's mishandling of the scheme would be anxious to question the premier over her logic on these points. But then, she didn't get any follow-up questions on her claims, and most of her statements went unchallenged.

Whether you agree with her or not isn't the point. The real question is why the country's leader has chosen not to engage in discussion on this vital issue in public forums, for the benefit of the people.

And, more important, why has nobody actually taken up the premier's challenge to really ask farmers whether they are better off under the policy? Many critics have claimed that only a few "elite" farmers are the real beneficiaries of the scheme, and that the real winners are the politicians.

If her Cabinet members haven't given her the whole picture, those who know otherwise are obliged to keep our prime minister up to date, or else the big risk for the country is that her confidence might be misplaced. And that could be dangerous indeed.


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