The biggest question currently facing the rice industry, academics and members of the public interested in the government's rice pledging scheme is: Are the Commerce Ministry's claims true that it has signed contracts to export 7.3 million tonnes of milled rice?
So far, statements from Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and Commerce Minister Boonsong Teriyapirom, the man at the centre of the export deal controversy, have done little to help clear the air about the existence or non-existence of the contracts.
Prime Minister Yingluck told the media on Tuesday that she had seen the memorandums of understanding (MoUs) concerning the rice export deals, and that eight million tonnes of rice were committed to be exported. Deliveries of all the rice, she said, would be completed by the end of next year.
However, Minister Boonsong quickly corrected that the rice contracts were already inked, and were not MoUs as mistakenly said by the prime minister.
So far so good, until it came to the details of the claimed rice deals _ or the lack of them. No information was given about the exact amount of rice being exported to each of the five reported customers _ China, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Ivory Coast and the Philippines _ nor were the sale prices given. The prime minister simply said that since they were international agreements, she did not have the details.
Mr Boonsong also failed to deliver anything more concrete than saying that the six contracts and five customers existed.
The commerce minister earlier said the deals were confidential and could not be disclosed publicly as it might affect foreign relations.
Such a claim from the minister is typical of the kind of excuses often heard from security officials when confronted by embarrassing questions they are reluctant to answer.
Since when are the details of a rice deal regarded as state secrets or confidential?
Aside from full disclosure helping to dispel the growing doubts over the existence of the government-to-government (G-to-G) rice export deals, it would also lend some credibility to the Commerce Ministry after its poor record on G-to-G rice sales this year.
Altogether, 3.29 million tonnes of milled rice were exported during the first eight months of this year by the private sector, with another lot of 540,000 tonnes expected to be shipped in September.
But the growing doubt about the existence of the Commerce Ministry's G-to-G contracts is leading to another big question _ how long can the Commerce Ministry, or to be more exact, Commerce Minister Boonsong, keep the public in the dark?
Since taxpayer money was used to buy the rice under the government's pledging scheme, the taxpaying public have every right to know how their money is being spent. That includes the right of access to information about the rice deals _ if they really exist.
Every tonne of rice left unsold means taxpayer money is being wasted due to storage fees and the degradation of rice quality as the grain is kept in storage.
The G-to-G rice deals are just one downside of the rice pledging scheme. There are other aspects which need to be quickly rectified; notably corruption, questionable pledging prices and the unlimited amount of paddy being pledged.
The entire scheme needs to be overhauled completely _ if not scrapped _ to ensure that only poor farmers stand to benefit the most from the scheme.