A true defender takes over

Unfazed by critics of the rice pledging programme, the new commerce permanent secretary vows full support for the scheme.

Vatchari Vimooktayon has been in the media spotlight regularly since taking the helm at the Internal Trade Department in 2010.

One of her main roles is to monitor product prices and to further the government's price control policies designed to help alleviate the cost of living for the average consumer.

Once again, her name has come into the spotlight as she was appointed the new permanent secretary replacing Yanyong Phuangrach and became the first female commerce permanent secretary amid scepticism that her promotion was politically motivated and a reward for what she has done in compliance with Pheu Thai's populist policies.

Mrs Vatchari's experience has been only in the Internal Trade Department, dealing with domestic consumption and the prices of goods.

In previous practice, those who are promoted to head the Commerce Ministry should be an all-rounder with knowledge based on management of different departments, enabling him or her to cope with both macro- and microeconomic challenges as well as international trade issues.

It's no surprise, though. On the first day in her office in early October, Mrs Vatchari emerged to defend the government's rice pledging policy despite widespread criticism by opposing parties and academics who claim that the controversial scheme is expected to not only bring about massive losses, but also affect the country's rice industry. The scheme has pushed up rice prices, undermining Thailand's ability to compete with other rice exporters globally.

The government's pledging scheme offers farmers up to 15,000 baht per tonne for white rice paddy and 20,000 baht per tonne for jasmine Hom Mali, about 35-40% above the market price, resulting in farmers' reluctance to redeem their rice.

There has also been sharp criticism about the government's capability to sell rice stocks despite Commerce Minister Boonsong Teriyapirom's insistence that the government has signed contracts to sell 7.3 million tonnes of rice under the controversial pledging scheme through government-to-government deals to four countries _ Indonesia, China, Bangladesh and Ivory Coast.Of the amount, 1.4 million tonnes have been delivered to the buyers, accounting for 20% of the total contracted amount. Another 300,000 tonnes will be delivered between now and December, and the remaining 5.56 million tonnes is to be gradually shipped out next year.

Mr Boonsong himself has never discussed how worse the rice situation next year will be once the new rice crop is harvested, while the government still continues to stockpile rice.

Nevertheless, Mrs Vatchari said she would like to see the government continue policies aimed at reducing the cost of the living and managing farm prices to have the least effect on the general public.

The ministry is also committed to going ahead with the rice pledging plan for the second year despite a simmering debate over the high costs of the scheme and the risk of breaching world trade regulations.

She also announced that she will fight all forms of criticism from academics who oppose the rice pledging scheme.

Despite being lambasted by critics who suggested that her promotion was politically motivated, Mrs Vatchari argues the role of the ministry and civil servants is to take care of farm product prices and living standards of the people.

"I'm not embarrassed to do anything that help our people and upgrade the living standards of the poor, improve people's incomes, farm prices and purchasing power, and create a fairer society," said Mrs Vatchari, 59, and a mother of one girl. "If critics see me as the government's puppet, I have to ask who they are and how they perform their duties at best. Don't get envious of farmers or the government. Why do we have to press farmers' heads down forever?"

Born to a family that ran a mom-and-pop store and small rice mill in Song Phi Nong district, Suphan Buri, where most of the area is devoted to rice farms, Mrs Vatchari was brought up among sons of farmers whose families eat grilled dry fish and fermented fish for most of all their daily meals. She had also witnessed farmers working hard throughout their lives and living frugally, but with unimproved living standards.

"The picture of farmers' hardship remains crystal-clear in my mind," said Mrs Vatchari, who started working for the Commerce Ministry in 1976.

"So I see nothing wrong complying with the government's policy and implementing a programme that focuses on the well-being of the majority of Thai people. But we have to admit that it's impossible for the government's populist policy to satisfy everyone and the state rice pledging scheme will definitely have winners and losers."

Mrs Vatchari considers the government's rice scheme an investment not only to ensure food security but also benefit farmers.

According to Mrs Vatchari, civil servants are themselves obliged to support the government's policy and work as a team.

"Politics in every country all focuses on the principle of populism _ helping the majority of people, offering them a better life," she said.

About the author

Writer: Phusadee Arunmas
Position: Business Reporter