Critics of the rice-pledging programme have focused correctly on its financial flaws. The populist plan was never sustainable, and its never-ending losses affected the budget, the national economy and, finally, the country's international image. This is unfortunate. The rice-pledging scheme addressed a serious and endemic problem in the country. Rice growers deserve a better deal, and the government can give it to them.
It is hardly news the farmers are disappointed, angry and generally in a bad mood over last week's changes to the rice-buying programme.
Less than two years ago, they were promised a sweet deal. They were paid for their rice at a higher price than the market. The government promised the programme would last indefinitely. Then, in less than 24 hours last week, the same government changed every term in the contract.
The government's rapid cave-in on the rice-pledging scheme has also energised the opposition. Sen Yutthana Thaiphakdi announced his subcommittee on rice monitoring will expand an investigation into irregularities in the Blue Flag store sales.
While this close attention to government programmes is welcome, it also leaves observers wondering where the investigators were during the past two years. Forcing the government to account for its actions is never a bad thing. But Sen Yutthana and others should try to ensure their criticism serves the general interest, and not just politics.
Here is a recap. The government started an unsustainable scheme that drained the treasury faster than any programme in Thai history. The rice-pledging agreement was to help farmers, "the backbone of the nation". A fair person could also criticise the plan as an election promise, designed to attract and keep votes for the ruling Pheu Thai Party. It attracted corrupt elements, who cheated farmers and taxpayers alike.
Finally, the government changed the plan. It did not consult farmers, but the rural rice growers are expected to absorb all negative effects, including a huge financial hit on their base income.
This is not just unfair. It is dangerously close to abuse of a truly admirable section of Thai society. Farmers, particularly rice farmers, labour year-round to produce two or three crops of the most vital food of the country. It is not the government, international rice buyers or urban workers who sweat and labour under sun and rain, wallow in paddies, and all for merely enough money to sustain their families and educate their children.
The Thai rice farmer deserves a better deal, and not because rice growers threaten to launch protests in Bangkok. Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her ministers should be eager to engage farmers and their legitimate representatives _ not middlemen and merchants. It is true the government cannot afford to pay 15,000 baht per tonne of rice for now. It also is true that it is unjust to manipulate this backbone of the nation, whipsawing them on the price they can expect for their crops.
Now is the time for a serious talk between government and rice farmers. The government can offer a better deal than it tried to set last week. An instant 20% price cut at harvest, plus a new, 500,000 baht limit on per-household sales is a breach of contract set at seeding time months ago. The government can do more to ease the pain of Thailand's long-suffering rice growers.