About Politics

About Politics

Yingluck's rice photo ops and Prayut's subsidies come under attack v Some election commissioners are scrambling to protect their jobs under new qualification rules v New army chief Gen Chalermchai likes to appease his masters

Seeking out agrain of truth

The never-ending drama surrounding the country's staple food is opening up a new opportunity for former MP Warong Dejkitwikrom to show yet again why he isn't called "Dr Rice" for nothing.

The drop in rice prices in recent weeks, particularly for hom mali, has provoked yet another political drama and counter-ploys played out on television. At the moment, rice is changing hands for half of what it commanded just a few months ago, and the slump is attributed mainly to oversupply and weak global demand.

Observers note the latest prices evoke memories of farmers living the glory days when state subsidies poured in to buy rice stocks at sky-high prices under the corruption-tainted rice-pledging scheme of the previous government.

With the incumbent administration launching a campaign to spur direct sales of rice between farmers and consumers, former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra popped up in Ubon Ratchathani and Surin where she purchased a substantial supply of rice from local farmers with the intention of helping them cope with the depressed prices.

The farmers told Ms Yingluck they missed the rice-pledging policy her government had served up. They also expressed sympathy for the plight of the former premier as she faces trial in the Supreme Court and an administrative order to pay compensation of more than 30 billion baht for failing to stop graft in her rice-pledging programme.

At one point, the tears welled up in Ms Yingluck's eyes. She also pledged to raise rice prices if she ever has a chance to lead the country again.

Ms Yingluck took no time at all to sell the rice she bought from the northeastern provinces in Bangkok. The supplies sold like hot cakes.

The government, however, is suspicious of Ms Yingluck's intentions. The former premier insists her visits to the two provinces were neither a publicity stunt nor a politically motivated ploy to underscore the farmer's plight and discredit the government.

The government has so far disbursed 38 billion baht in subsidies to help farmers suffering from the low prices. The assistance, it insists, is given so that farmers can survive, but without distorting market forces.

Watching from ringside, Dr Warong's curiosity has been piqued about Ms Yingluck purchasing rice from farmers in the Northeast and reselling it in a "rice caravan" in Bangkok.

He said some of the "farmers" on hand to greet Ms Yingluck in the Northeast came across as surprisingly prim. A social media picture was also circulated of a middle-aged woman, presumably one of the rice farmers, who had also made appearances in red-shirt protests in the past. However, the authenticity of the picture has not been confirmed.

Dr Warong, a former Democrat Party MP for Phitsanulok, added some questions were left unanswered about Ms Yingluck's rice sale in Bangkok.

Most importantly, he pointed out the rice had been de-husked and transported to the capital in neatly packed sacks, suggesting the stocks may have come from millers, not the farmers.

Dr Warong said most farmers do not own milling machines at home, so they would likely have sold only unhusked rice to Ms Yingluck, who would have needed more than a few days to have it processed and bagged before being taken to Bangkok for sale. There had been very little time between Ms Yingluck's purchase of the rice in the Northeast and the sales campaign in the capital, according to the former MP.

He said selling the milled hom mali rice at 20 baht/kg in Bangkok had put pressure on rice prices in a "cold-blooded" manner, when the grain was being offered at 30-35 baht/kg. It was apparently undermining the government at the expense of the market, he added.

Dr Warong also agreed with the government's subsidy scheme, although he suggested more rice barns should be built, particularly in the Central Plains provinces, to store the rice unhusked, which keeps longer. That way, farmers have places to keep their stocks while they wait until prices pick up again.

Cowering watchdogs

By all accounts it seems some members of the Election Commission (EC) are concerned about their job security under the new charter's qualification requirements for members of public independent organisations.

Under the new charter, which is pending royal endorsement, the EC, which currently has five members, needs seven members to organise the next general election.

Constitution Drafting Committee chairman Meechai Ruchupan said that the qualification requirements apply to all public independent organisations.

He said the new criteria calls for stricter qualifications for EC members and other members of independent bodies in order to find more experienced people who are level-headed and ready to listen to others.

Under the new charter, EC members must, for example, have at least five years' experience as a department director-general or an equivalent post, or must have served as a top executive of a state enterprise agency for at least five years, or have been a professor for at least five years, or have been a chief judge or a chief prosecutor for at least five years, or have worked in the public sector for at least 20 years, to qualify as an election commissioner.

The five current EC members who have been in office since Dec 13, 2013, are chairman Supachai Somcharoen, Dhirawat Dhirarojvit, Boonsong Noisophon, Pravich Rattanapian, and Somchai Srisutthiyakorn.

The qualifications of three members -- Mr Supachai, Mr Dhirawat and Mr Boonsong -- should match the new criteria under the new charter.

Mr Supachai formerly held several positions including that of presiding judge at the Appeal Courts of Regions 4 and 8, while Mr Dhirawat formerly served as chief judge of Region 9. Mr Boonsong was formerly the chief judge of Region 3 as well as president of the Appeal Court, Region 7.

But the qualifications of the other two EC members -- Mr Pravich and Mr Somchai -- are still in doubt under the new rules.

Mr Pravich was a former ombudsman, and the Office of the Ombudsman is an independent organisation, not a government office.

But the rules may be stretched a bit so that he could be considered as a "former civil servant" holding the equivalent post of a department director-general, according to sources.

Still, there remains another hurdle as Mr Pravich served as an ombudsman for only three years, not five years, which may not qualify him to be an election commissioner under the new charter, anyway.

Considering his other work credentials, Mr Pravich was also a former rector of Rattana Bundit university.

While the post of a state university rector is equivalent to that of a department director-general, Rattana Bundit university is privately run, not a state institution, and this may not qualify him either, the source said.

As for Mr Somchai, he was a former vice rector at Thammasat University, as well as a former associate professor at the university. But these academic credentials still do not fit the new criteria under the new charter.

However, Mr Somchai says he is confident he qualifies as an election commissioner under the new charter as he has worked in the public sector for 24 years, which should fit the new rules. His former jobs include work at the Open Forum for Democracy Foundation and the People's Network for Elections in Thailand (P-Net), an independent election watchdog.

Staying in PM's good books

Army chief Gen Chalermchai Sitthisart, observers note, is very responsive to the government and always at the ready to implement policies.

Those watching him from the sidelines reckon there might be some special reason for that.

On becoming army chief last month, he immediately got down to work, touring the 2nd Army Region at the Suranaree military camp where he left the commander, Lt Gen Vichai Chaejorhor, with plenty of homework to do.

Lt Gen Vichai, a likely contender for one of the army's top five most powerful posts and possibly a future candidate for army chief, was reminded by Gen Chalermchai that his top priority is to maintain security and see to it that no political unrest occurs which could disrupt or derail the National Council for Peace and Order's roadmap to a general election at the end of next year.

The 2nd Army Region is positioned in geopolitically sensitive turf as it oversees military affairs in the Northeast where the Pheu Thai Party maintains a stronghold and where red shirts predominate.

According to a source in the army, Gen Chalermchai has stressed that where necessary, tough legal enforcement may be in order to deal with elements seeking to stir up unrest and cause trouble for the government.

During his junior years in the army, Gen Chalermchai worked incognito in the secret service during the height of the Cambodia-Vietnam conflict. He worked actively on missions which took him along the border with Cambodia for many years.

The army chief said he had spent half his working life in areas under the 2nd Army Region's supervision. He is acquainted with many senior officers in the region who worked alongside him in border-guarding operations in the past.

Gen Chalermchai said he has total confidence in the 2nd Army Region staff and their ability to get a job done.

His readiness to put government policies into action was seen soon after he was sworn in as army commander-in-chief. He held a press conference to reveal that many weapons belonging to the army remained missing, presumably taken by the red shirts, during the military takeover of the Kok Wua area in the street protests against the Abhisit Vejjajiva administration in 2010.

The army chief expressed concern that the looted weapons could be used to stage violent acts in the future.

Gen Chalermchai has also been helping Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha solve the dilemma caused by the fall in rice prices, which has caught the government napping.

The army source said, Gen Chalermchai, concurrently the NCPO secretary-general, dispatched soldiers to scour for information, both covertly and overtly, to get to the bottom of the price slump. The soldiers were in talks with millers to find out whether any politicians were behind the free-fall in rice prices.

At the same time, the millers were urged not to buy rice stock at too low a price from farmers.

In the midst of the depressed prices, the soldiers went to rice fields to help farmers with their harvest, and this free labour helped reduce production costs.

The source said an impression has been created of Gen Chalermchai as an army chief who reckons that no task is too big or small to accomplish as long as it is assigned by the government.

The source said it may be open to interpretation whether Gen Chalermchai is trying to post a list of achievements that could come in handy in securing his stay in the army post until his retirement in two years. If that is the case, taking care not to disappoint Gen Prayut would be the ultimate goal.

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