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 paddy mortgage 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 having been made the country’s chief executive for 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 from the opposition which has postponed the motion until an unknown date. 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 the clearest statement yet in an interview with Thailand’s mass-circulation paper on the issue, without so much as hitting the headlines although it contains 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 paddy pledging policy suffered a loss, “it should be acceptable” because it would 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 all the way from the prime minister down to all Cabinet members couldn’t possibly oversee the whole operations
“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 back to the rice fields to ask farmers whether their livelihood has improved as a result of that policy? Why is it that only some groups of people have been asked of their opinion on the issue?
The premier insisted that the current massive rice stock has depressed prices. “But that’s because we have only launched the scheme a few months ago. Wait 8 months from now, we will witness 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 were surprised, the premier wasn’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 so anything about it. They have overtaken Thailand in the world market as a matter of course,” she added.
I am sure a good number of critics who have taken up the controversy to criticize 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 statement 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 discussions on this vital issue in public forums that will benefit the people.
And, more important, why has nobody actually taken up the premier’s challenge to really ask farmers whether they are better off with the policy? Many critics have claimed that only a small number of “elite” farmers are the real beneficiaries of the plan and that the real gainers 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.