Time for rice graft justice

Time for rice graft justice

It is a known fact that the rice-pledging scheme of the Pheu Thai-led government was plagued with massive corruption. Critics have pointed out that graft was found at every stage of the scheme's implementation — from the registration of farmers eligible to pledge their paddy and accounting of rice pledged by millers, to the adulteration of pledged rice, smuggling of rice from neighbouring countries, the theft of rice from stockpiles and fabrication of government-to-government rice export deals.

The concept of the scheme itself was pure fantasy — buying high from farmers at an unrealistic price of 15,000 baht per tonne with the expectation that Thailand, then ranked the world's top rice exporter, could manipulate market prices and sell Thai grain at even higher prices at a profit. Yet all these known aspects of the fiasco pale in comparison to the latest information made available by months-long rice inspections and investigations led by Prime Minister's Office Minister ML Panadda Diskul.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha's revealed the result of the inspection himself on Tuesday. The country was shocked to learn that only 10% of the 18 million tonnes of rice pledged by the previous government and stored in warehouses and silos across the country is of good quality. Though the DNA tests confirmed they are Thai grains, 70% of them are of low quality; most rice has turned yellow due to its long period in storage and the rest is simply rotten, inedible and can only be turned into ethanol.

Only 10% of the rice — 1.8 million tonnes — was of good quality. What's left is 12.6 million tonnes of rice in poor condition and 3.6 million tonnes of completely rotten rice. Then, there are 100,000 tonnes which have gone missing from the accounting books.

Based on the pledging price of 15,000 baht per tonne, the loss from the 3.6 million tonnes of rotten rice alone could amount to 540 billion baht if it is not converted into ethanol. Experts have estimated damage ranging from 580-700 billion baht, excluding bank loan interest and storage fees the government has yet to pay.

To cover the huge losses from the scheme without placing too much of a burden on the annual budget, the government is considering a plan to issue bonds for sale to the public and financial institutions. But in the end, it is the taxpayers who will have to shoulder this burden.

Gen Prayut stopped short of saying who should be held accountable for the rice-pledging fiasco and the losses incurred by the country. He seemed to place the onus on the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) to do the dirty job of clearing up the mess and dealing with the culprits.

That is indeed a letdown. Gen Prayut, in his capacity as premier and head of the National Council for Peace and Order, has promised to get rid of corruption and irregularities. The public expects those behind rice scheme irregularities and graft to be punished. Several of the NACC's cases, including the one against former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra concerning the rice-pledging scheme, have been delayed by the Office of the Attorney-General because of insufficient evidence.

This should not be the case now with the latest findings. Apart from solid evidence and transparency, speed is also key. Court procedures usually take ages. If the government wants to send a strong message against corruption, the judicial process for the rice scheme should not be business as usual. Taxpayers who shoulder the 800-billion-baht rice scheme cost need to see justice done.

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