Some 260 billion baht has already been spent on subsidising rice prices and another 405 billion baht will follow for the next farming season. If one were to view the rice pledging scheme from an economic perspective, surely one would see that it is full of holes. If one were to assume that the intention of the scheme is to better the lives of farmers, surely it's obvious that any benefits would be minimal and temporary. But if one were to look at the scheme from a realpolitik perspective, surely one would see its merits.
Oftentimes we misjudge a government policy because we misinterpret its motives and intentions, and such is the case with the rice pledging scheme. If one views the scheme in the big picture context of this ''sensitive and transitional period'' in Thai history, it can be understood as a sound strategy on the part of Thaksin Shinawatra and the Pheu Thai Party.
Every move, every sneeze and every passing of wind from both sides of the political divide is for one goal only, complete political victory. For Thaksin, this means his return to Thailand, his being exonerated from any wrongdoings and his return to power. The wheels have been in motion over the past year of Pheu Thai's term.
In government bureaucracies, agencies and state enterprises, the right people have been, are being and will continue to be put in the right places. On the Royal Thai Police force, a new chief has been appointed. Then there's the new chief of the metropolitan police, who flew to meet Thaksin and thank him for the appointment personally.
Air Chief Marshal Sukumpol Suwannatat is cleaning out the Defence Ministry and placing Thaksin loyalists in key positions. As well, overtures have been made to key players inside the palace. All this and more are sure signs the wheels are in motion. But aside from all the political intrigues, the Thaksin think-tank knows not to forget the most important support base for the man himself, the populace. Keep them happy with the current regime, angry with the opposition and by all means keep them poor and poorly educated and hence easy to manipulate, while rewarding them with ''extras'' every now and again. It's simple, time honoured and delicious. It's been done for thousands of years.
The rice pledging scheme has little do with the economic viability of the Thai rice industry and even less to do with bettering the lives of poor tenant farmers living in medieval huts, albeit with satellite dishes. If the government is serious about helping Thailand's poor farmers, then there's this thing called land redistribution. But neither side of the political divide would touch that issue with a 10-foot pole, because too many rich and powerful individuals on both sides own the land.
Bettering the lives of poor tenant farmers is not in anyone's interests if it comes at the expense of rich landowners, and hence it will be ignored by the networks of Thai ruling elites, on both sides of the political divide.
The political reality is that Thailand is a peasant, agricultural country with a democratic system but feudal governance. Therefore, the power-play is between the rich and the populace, with the tiny middle class caught in the middle. But they are easily kept contented shopping at malls, watching soap operas, partying at social events, updating their Instagram and clicking ''like'' on whatever.
Central Bank chairman Virabongsa Ramangkura warned that the rice pledging scheme could doom the Pheu Thai government because the project opens the door to widespread corruption beyond the government's control.
The 100-plus academics and students of the National Institute of Development Administration want the project amended to plug all the loopholes benefiting shady politicians, officials, millers, exporters and smugglers. But if they were to look at the issue from the point of view of the political realist, they might see the problems as opportunities to enrich politicians, officials, millers, exporters, smugglers and so on, thereby ensuring their happiness with the generosity of the current regime _ a very sound political move.
Farmers win some extra cash. Rice mills win more extra cash. Cronies and connections make more money. Pheu Thai wins more love. The logic is simple: Under the Democrats they were poor and had little money, while under Pheu Thai, they are still poor but they have extra cash to play with. Meanwhile, the Democrats and the traditional elites lose more ground. Their cronies and connections don't get to share the cake.
The same wisdom applies to the government's 2.75 trillion baht infrastructure development plan unveiled on Friday.
Every criticism from opponents of the scheme unwittingly helps to strengthen Thaksin's support base, additional ammunition for the red shirt UDD to go, ''See, those elites hate us and want to keep us down. Only Thaksin cares about us.''
It widens the Kingdom's political divide and deepens the mistrust, the suspicion and the hate. All of which plays right into the hands of Thaksin. The controversy over the rice pledging scheme serves as another talking point to inflame his supporters along a very simple debate line: Thaksin is helping the poor; the traditional elites are trying to prevent this.
From Thucydides to Sun Tzu, from Machiavelli to Cardinal Richelieu and Thomas Hobbes, from Prince Van Metternich to Otto von Bismarck, if we were to wake them from the dead for an interview, they too would say, ''let's keep it real in the rice field.''
Political realism is a view that the world is driven by competitive self interest, not by some feel-good, bedtime morality tale. As such, it is in the interest of every political entity in the democratic system to have the backing of the populace. There is no good guy versus bad guy in political realism; it is simply a matter of who plays the better game.
As the saying goes, money talks, cow manure walks. Pheu Thai is putting cold, hard cash in the hands of farmers, millers and anyone else who might penetrate the alleged loopholes - and those people are very happy about it. No amount of signatures and opinion articles is going to change that.
Sutapa Amornvivat, chief economist and executive vice president at Siam Commercial Bank, wrote that Thailand will face huge losses. Rice exports are down by as much as 46% over the first seven months of this year, as prices have been driven up by 30-40% above those of Vietnam and India.
She said the two countries are set to overtake Thailand as the world's largest rice exporters for the first time in three decades. Meanwhile, the rice sits idly in government warehouses, deteriorating, with no one to sell to.
Those numbers are true enough. But it doesn't matter. According to reports, Thaksin will simply solve the problem by manipulating the rice market over the next two years. So carry on, nothing to see here, all is well and in good hands.
Now, who are the 15 million people who voted Pheu Thai going to believe? People who try to keep money away from poor farmers? Or the man who for the past seven years stood by them through hardships, sacrifices and loss of lives and limbs, shoulder-to-shoulder (well, in spirit anyway, via video and phone links)?
It's the ''us versus them'' mentality. No matter how many empty pledges and failed promises Thaksin has made, he's been successful at what matters most, which is convincing those 15 million and more who voted Pheu Thai that he's one of them. Hence, the other side is the enemy.
The argument on whether the rice pledging scheme will benefit Thailand and better the lives of farmers is moot, because this is not the motive or the intention of the scheme. Do not judge the world in general and politics in particular with expectations of morality, real life isn't a fairy tale. Competitive self interest is the reality.
And in the grand Thai tradition, we'll worry about the economic backlash stemming from the massive amount of corruption sometime in the future, when it hits us smack in the face.
By that time however, rest assured that the rich ruling clique will be even richer and more powerful, and the populace will be even more dependent upon them. So yes, rest certain that the rice pledging scheme is a sound political move, and there's always the alternatives of cheaper Vietnamese rice or a low-carb diet.
Contact Voranai Vanijaka via email at email@example.com.
About the author
- Writer: Voranai Vanijaka
Position: Political and Social Commentator