Critics also say that coalition politicians are taking kickbacks on contracts from the millers and exporters to whom they have chosen to sell quotas of rice overseas, all while many of the poorest farmers are seeing their prices reduced significantly by the time the money filters down the food chain, albeit while still earning more than before Yingluck Shinawatra took power.
“We don’t know how much rice is in the warehouses, how much is being exported and how much the farmers are actually making – we don’t know anything,” says Democrat Party spokesman Chavanond Intarakomalyasut.
Kreetha Charatkulangkun, director of Tek Seng Rice Mill, a rice export company based in Bangkok, says the scheme has proven devastating for the country’s rice industry.
For years, Thailand was the world’s number one exporter in the world, but is expected to slip to the third position this year, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimating it will export 6.5 million tons of rice in 2012 compared with India’s 9.75 million tons and Vietnam 7 million tons.
“In my and many other opinions, the government’s rice-pledging scheme is very extreme and is clearly a vote-buying policy,” says Kreetha. “It is the worst political policy in the history of Thailand.”
As enemies of the state’s rice scheme have queued up to criticize Yingluck’s government, most have pointed fingers squarely at her brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who has calmly defended the policy in exile where he remains on the run from a two-year prison term for corruption. A day rarely passes without a Thai newspaper reporting on efforts by Yingluck to smooth her brother’s passage back to Thailand.
Meanwhile, the main farming areas in the north of the country remain as supportive of the current government as they were of Thaksin when he was in power from 2001 to 2006.
In a poll last month by Khon Kaen University in the northeastern Isan region (which includes Nakhom Phanom province), 81% of respondents said they supported the government’s overall performance, even if only 46.8% backed its performance on the economy, a figure much lower than in many other areas including the coalition’s handling of democratization, social issues like crime and drug use, foreign policy, and environmental protection.
Suthin Wainwiwat, director of E-Saan Poll which conducted the survey, said as long as the Shinawatras continue their populist policies aimed at the millions of families who farm in the north they will remain unstoppable at the ballot box, no matter the criticism in Bangkok.
“They support Yingluck because they hope that Thaksin will be able to come back and help them again,” he said.
Steve Finch is a freelance journalist based in Bangkok. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Foreign Policy, TIME, The Independent, Toronto Star and Bangkok Post among others.