Rice-pledging scheme’s dominoes are ready to fall
The 91,000 sacks (about 9,100 tonnes) of rice worth 69 million baht that are missing from the warehouse of Agritec (Thailand) Company in Pathum Thani are just the tip of a very large iceberg — three million tonnes of rice is rumoured to have "disappeared" from rice stockpiles nationwide.
The missing rice was discovered by army troops who raided the warehouse on Friday following a tip-off.
The troops also discovered the company had tried to cover up the theft by neatly piling the rice sacks several metres high to form a four-sided wall.
Looking from the outside, it gave the impression that the warehouse was packed with rice.
But Col Suksan Nongbualang, who led the warehouse inspection, is not a person to be easily deceived.
He ordered his men to climb the rice-stacked wall where they found that in the middle of the pile there was no rice, just scaffolding to prevent the wall collapsing.
The warehouse was supposed to store 130,000 sacks of White Broken Rice A1 Super and White Rice 5%, belonging to the Marketing Organisation for Farmers (MOF), which rented the warehouse for storage.
As for the remaining rice in the warehouse, samples have been taken for testing to see whether the quality matches that specified by the MOF.
It will be more eye-opening if the rice samples are DNA tested to find out if rice varieties from neighbouring countries have been added to the mix.
Sizeable amounts of paddy are reported to have been smuggled in from Cambodia and Myanmar and pledged under the rice-pledging scheme in collaboration with rice farmers to profit from the wide price difference between foreign and Thai paddy.
But what is truly mind boggling about the theft is the fact there have been reports about rice going missing from this warehouse dating back to last July and November.
Yet no action was taken to find out whether the report was true or not. The plausible assumption was that the MOF officials concerned did not bother to find out and preferred to just sit idly by.
Army troops and police are conducting similar rice stock checks in all warehouses across the country which store rice under the rice-pledging scheme.
Once the checks are finished, we will have a clearer picture of the remaining stockpiles — the actual amount has been a mystery that even the Commerce Ministry cannot fathom.
Comparing the real amount with the figures from the ministry, we will get a clearer picture of how many tonnes of rice have actually been sold and, more interestingly, how many tonnes are unaccounted for.
To make the stock checks accurate, all warehouses storing government-owned rice have been ordered to close and seal their doors to prevent rice from being moved in or out.
The rice-pledging scheme is a mess, partly because of the lack of transparency in the ministry's handling of the scheme in all its various aspects. This ranges from the secrecy of government-to-government deals — in which all vital information such as price and delivery schedules and actual amounts of rice sold were kept confidential — to the amount of rice in the stockpiles.
But those who were responsible for the mess, or who overlooked the irregularities that plagued the scheme, should have learned from the fate of a handful of rice cheaters from two recent court cases.
Earlier this month, the Chaiyaphum provincial court sentenced the owner of Nopporn rice mill to 20 years imprisonment for having embezzled about 750 tonnes of state-owned rice worth 11 million baht stored in its warehouse. Nine farmers who were involved in the rice fraud were given six months jail each.
Last week, the Samut Prakan district court convicted the proprietor of President Agri Trading Company, Apichart "Sia Piang" Chansakulporn, who is reported to be close to fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, to six years imprisonment after he was found guilty of having embezzled 20,000 tonnes of rice worth 200 million baht that was supposed to have been delivered to Iran.
He was also ordered to compensate the Foreign Trade Department for about 200 million baht for the "stolen" rice and other expenditure.
Although the rice-pledging scheme has been scrapped by the National Council for Peace and Order, the cleanup of the rice scheme mess which was swept under the rug by the Yingluck administration has just started in earnest.
Many people are yet to meet their fate, including former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra who is accused of negligence for failing to properly oversee the scheme.
But the huge loss over two years from the badly-thought out populist scheme, estimated at 500 billion baht, is indeed a tragedy for the country.
Veera Prateepchaikul is a former editor, Bangkok Post.
Former Bangkok Post Editor, political commentator and a regular columnist at Post Publishing.