ASEAN KEY DESTINATIONS
Rice farmers go to polls disappointed with Puea Thai govt
The Straits Times
Charoon Em Jai works a small plot of rice near the northern city of Chiang Mai – home to the Shinawatra clan and stronghold of the “red shirt’’ movement. The 45 year old who drives a “song taew” or pick-up truck converted into a public transport, has always voted for the Shinawatras’ Puea Thai party – but this time he will not.
“I will vote for number 27, the Farmers Network of Thailand Party,” he said. “At least they are our comrades and will work for us.”
“I used to vote for the Puea Thai party because I believed in Thaksin Shinawatra and his policies. But after (prime minister and Thaksin’s sister) Yingluck Shinawatra dissolved parliament and the government could not pay us the rice pledging money, I started to doubt the sincerity of Puea Thai in helping farmers. “We have been waiting for the money for several months. Many of my friends are struggling with financial burdens because they pinned hope on the government.”
Charoon’s dilemma underscores the fiasco of the Puea Thai party’s rice purchasing scheme which was designed to pamper its rural voter base but has instead left the government with millions of tons of rice at prices higher than the world market – and no buyer in sight unless it dumps it at a massive loss.
Analysts say the rice purchasing scheme, which was started when the party came to power in 2011, is costing the government around US$10 billion a year.
Ironically, thousands of farmers have also not actually benefited; many have not seen any money for months despite slips of paper saying the government will pay them for rice stocks that have already been “bought”.
This week, the party – unable to spend money because there is no sitting parliament, and with farmers clamouring for their cash - tried to raise money from banks to enable it to pay up, but was rebuffed. Central bank governor Prasarn Trairatvorakul on Friday urged the government to sell rice anyway, even at a loss, to raise cash instead of trying to borrow it.
Earlier this month, Thailand’s National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) decided to press charges against former commerce minister Boonsong Teriyapirom, his deputy and 15 others in connection with alleged rice trading fraud – saying purported deals to sell rice to foreign governments did not really exist. Crucially, it also said it would investigate caretaker prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra for negligence in allowing this to happen.
A negative verdict could see the premier forced to resign her post, driving one more nail in the coffin of the beleaguered government. The Puea Thai party is expected to win Sunday’s poll, but results will take weeks to be finalised. In the meantime, there will be no sitting parliament and the premier could be brought down by the investigation.
Up to a million rice farmers may have not received the cash that is their due, reports say. Rice farmers have in recent weeks, blocked highways in the north of the country, demanding they be paid.
The Puea Thai party got around 15 million votes in 2011, on the back of a slew of populist schemes which had made a tangible difference to the lives of the poorer upcountry masses.
The rice buying scheme was stoutly defended as a sop to farmers, but with the delayed payments or non-payments and the government in effect short of money to meet its obligations, many traditional supporters have turned against the Puea Thai and the poll could see the ruling party’s vote count eroded on the back of the rice fiasco.
This could dent the government’s legitimacy, leaving it more vulnerable to strident calls for its resignation from the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) which has been disrupting the government’s work and occupying key intersections in Bangkok.
The PDRC rejects Sunday’s election, demanding the end of the “Thaksin regime” – a reference to premier Yingluck’s billionaire brother Thaksin Shinawatra who is known to control the party from his self-exile abroad dodging a two year sentence on a corruption charge.
Also in the fields near Charoon, Somkuan Kam-Ai, a 48 year old widower, leases just under 1.5 hectares of private rice land, but has not yet received the 100,000 Baht he says the government owes him.
“I am waiting with no hope,” he says. “Now I have to invest in another crop.”
Still, he will vote for the Puea Thai again anyway, he said – but only reluctantly, and only because if they come back to power there is a slim chance they will pay up.
“If someone else comes to power they may not continue the rice pledging scheme and I will lose all that money I am entitled to,” he said.
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