Rice is a staple food in Southeast Asia, which explains why many politicians panic when rice farmers are agitated or when consumers complain about high prices. Today, rice farmers in Thailand are protesting after the national government repeatedly failed to pay them under the rice pledging program. In the Philippines, the issue of unabated rice smuggling has alarmed many sectors, prompting government agencies to conduct a thorough investigation about the matter.
Introduced in 2011 after the election victory of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the rice subsidy program involved the government buying the rice output of local farmers at a high price before reselling it to the global market. The program was meant to improve the savings of farmers, although critics derided it as a wasteful populist policy.
The government reduced the subsidy price six months ago to offset the huge losses incurred by the program, but farmers were still assured that they would get paid for their products. But the money didn’t arrive and in fact the delayed payments have already reached 130 billion baht ($4 billion) affecting more than a million farmers.
Burdened with rising debt, desperate and angry rice farmers marched to Bangkok last week demanding payment from the government. They blocked several roads near Bangkok and camped in front of the Ministry of Commerce.
A majority of the farmer-protesters are not affiliated with anti-government groups behind the Bangkok Shutdown campaign, but their arrival in the city has intensified the country’s political crisis.
The opposition has expressed support to the protesting farmers and has initiated a donation campaign to help sustain the protest in the city. The opposition is also blaming corruption under the Yingluck government for the present suffering of rice farmers.
For its part, the government said it was unable to pay farmers because of the ongoing protests.. It urged protesters not to block or occupy government banks.
The government also assured farmers that it would find a way to deliver the payments. It also rejected criticism that the rice subsidy program has become a disastrous populist policy, stating that “[the] ultimate goal of the rice pledging scheme is not the government’s popularity, but simply the upgrade of income security for the better lives of farmers, and for the better future of our posterity since rice farming means growing the better future on our own land without any impact to the country’s monetary and fiscal disciplines.”
Yingluck cannot afford to ignore the farmers since many of them came from villages that supported her party in the recent election. But she should also heed the advice of many economists who earlier warned her administration that the rice subsidy program needs to be revised.
Moving on to the Philippines, rice smuggling has resurfaced as a top political issue after it was reported that 50,000 metric tons of rice was smuggled into the country weekly in 2013. The Philippines was the world’s top rice importer in 2011.
In response, Congress has conducted a probe to pinpoint the suspected rice smugglers in the country. They also urged the government to fast track the resolution of the 157 rice smuggling cases.
“Smuggling is hurting our economy and it is hurting severely the livelihood of our poor rural farmers, who spend their entire days toiling under the sun to ensure that we would have food on our table, only to be thwarted by those who engage in rice smuggling,” said Senate President Franklin Drilon.
Recently, the Department of Justice claimed that it has already arrested the “king of rice smugglers.” But some are doubtful if the government caught the real mastermind behind the smuggling ring. Local traders are also demanding the arrest of other rice smuggling syndicates who are in cahoots with local politicians and customs officials.
What is further needed is the stamping out of corruption in the government’s rice importation program. Perhaps President Benigno Aquino III, who promised rice self-sufficiency before the end of his term in 2016, should look closely into the issue.
Thailand’s protesting rice farmers and the Philippines’ rice smuggling scandal demonstrate why rice is more than just a staple food in Southeast Asia. It is an important political commodity that can affect election results and even ignite a social uprising.
*The text has been updated from the original version to clarify that the Philippines was the world’s largest rice importer in 2011. Hat tip to our commenter, Andrew Craig-Bennett.