Coriander crisis brings aroma of dictators past

Coriander crisis brings aroma of dictators past

Among the most memorable quotes in Thai politics is one made by the late coup leader Gen Sunthorn Kongsompong: "If Su does not want it, then give it to Teh".

In context, "Su" means Gen Suchinda Kraprayoon, former army chief and a member of the 1991 National Peace-keeping Council (NPKC) while "Teh" refers to Air Chief Marshal Kaset Rojananil, another NPKC member.

Gen Sunthorn's casual short-cutting of the process of how a prime minister should legitimately attain power was among other utterances snubbing the spirit of democracy.

Another memorable one was Gen Suchinda's "lying for the sake of the country" as he went back on his own words and took the premiership.

These speeches sparked public outrage and eventually led to the bloody Black May incident which also marked the downfall of the 1991 coup makers.

Thirty years have passed, but the attitude -- the oversimplified way of looking at things and strongman's mentality that all the world's problems can be solved by giving an order -- has remained astonishingly intact.

Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha's ideas, telling soldiers to grow coriander in military camps to tackle the rising prices of the herb and to use military lorries to fill in logistics gaps in case truckers went on strike over the diesel price surge, seem to have brought back the past.

Let's look at the military coriander first.

Early this month, there was an outcry about the steep rise in prices of vegetables caused by flooding and rising oil prices.

Coriander was cited as a prime example as its price had gone up from about 100 baht to 400 baht per kilo.

Concerned that people's cost of living would go up, PM Gen Prayut ordered soldiers to grow commonly used vegetables including coriander in military bases to boost supplies and drive prices down.

The suggestion follows the law of demand and supply so it could have been a logical response. It also seemed expedient.

But is that what the military is for? To grow vegetables whenever there are shortages?

Who was to subsidise the cultivation? To be able to produce enough supplies to meet demand or to drive prices down, it is estimated that up to a billion baht would have to be spent. Otherwise, the mission would have no effect.

And if the military coriander succeeded in driving down its price, what should real coriander growers do? Would the PM again intervene by ordering soldiers to buy more coriander to push prices up?

Indeed, why do we have to depend on so many complicated systems -- the commerce ministry and its numerous regulations, free market capitalism, and even the constitution that says what tasks state agencies are entitled to do -- if the problem of shortages and high produce prices could be tackled so easily?

And if the army owns so much land, shouldn't it be used for more beneficial purposes? Has the defence ministry really been using state property to grow herbs?

The same logic seems to govern the PM's idea of having military vehicles fill in if truck drivers strike in protest over the diesel price hike as threatened by the Land Transport Federation of Thailand early this week.

The army jumped up in response putting 3,700 trucks on standby. Elsewhere, however, the PM's idea was met with doubt and ridicule.

Not only are army trucks not suitable for cargo transport in terms of design and fuel efficiency but they probably are not registered to ply the road for commercial purposes either, people said.

Also, how could the seemingly random intervention be justified? If oil prices do not go down, would the army have to foot the bill for the operation for a year?

It seems there are details about the cargo and logistics business that make it what it is which also make commercial trucks necessary. The same is true with the prices of agricultural produce, oil prices, inflation, economic management or an understanding of the macro-economy for that matter.

The PM's attempt to bypass these complex systems and let the army come to the rescue whenever problems arise does not always work. Indeed, it only reveals how little he understands public administration and, simply put, about how the world works.

His rueful lament that people would have to transport sacks of products on foot should the strike take place reaffirmed his uninformed, unimaginative worldview. If the government can only tell people to carry their own goods when truckers go on strike, it is not worthy.

The PM's coriander-and-trucks remarks bring back memories of the dictatorial past. Back then, however, these ignorant remarks sparked an uproar, even a regime change. Now, it seems to have spawned only quiet resignation.

Atiya Achakulwisut is a Bangkok Post columnist.

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