Push to sell old rice raises questions
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Push to sell old rice raises questions

Critics believe it is the start of campaign to whitewash Yingluck

Deputy Prime Minister and Commerce Minister Phumtham Wechayachai brings reporters to see old rice stocks in Surin early this month. (Photo: Ministry of Commerce)
Deputy Prime Minister and Commerce Minister Phumtham Wechayachai brings reporters to see old rice stocks in Surin early this month. (Photo: Ministry of Commerce)

Critics have slammed the government's plan to sell decade-old rice, accusing it of attempting to whitewash the loss-ridden rice-pledging scheme of former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra's administration.

The plan to export the decade-old rice will ruin the global reputation of Thailand's premium rice in the world market, they said.

Deputy Prime Minister and Commerce Minister Phumtham Wechayachai insisted the government wants to auction off the last stocks of 15,000 tonnes of rice left over from the controversial rice-pledging scheme so the government can earn some revenue.

Mr Phumtham said the bidding is expected to generate revenue of about 270 million baht and reduce storage costs, which are as high as 380,000 baht per month. He said the old rice is expected to be exported to Africa.

Early this month, Mr Phumtham, the deputy leader of the ruling Pheu Thai Party, led a group of officials and reporters to inspect two rice warehouses in the northeastern province of Surin to show that the pledged rice stored there 10 years ago is still edible.

He ate cooked rice from the warehouses in front of the reporters who accompanied him.

He said the old rice could be washed in water up to 15 times before cooking, when it would be ready for consumption.

The minister said the rice at both warehouses had been carefully preserved and was frequently fumigated, while the warehouses were sealed to prevent birds and rainwater from getting inside.

But critics argue the rice appears to be in "good condition" because it has been through cycles of fumigation for over a decade.

If the rice requires fumigation every two months, it has been through 60 fumigation cycles, which is hazardous to people's health.

The rice-eating stunt is reminiscent of the fried chicken eating show orchestrated by former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra at Sanam Luang in February 2004 to prove Thai chicken was safe following the outbreak of bird flu in Thailand.

The Yingluck rice-pledging scheme, which ran from 2011 to 2014, was the largest rice market intervention programme in Thai history.

Throughout the scheme, the government bought grains from farmers at well above the market price without setting any limit on the amount purchased for the first time.

This resulted in losses totalling hundreds of billions of baht.

Yingluck fled the country in 2017 just before the Supreme Court sentenced her to five years in jail for failing to stop fake and corruption-plagued government-to-government sales.

After the scheme ended in May 2014, roughly 18.6 million tonnes of rice remained.

On Sept 10, 2018, the administration of prime minister Prayut Chan-o-cha sold 17.8 million tonnes or 95.7%, generating revenue of about 146 billion baht.

Political aims

Olarn Thinbangtieo, a political science lecturer at Burapha University, told the Bangkok Post he believed the government had engaged in a political ploy.

"It is similar to the chicken-eating show when Thaksin was prime minister," Mr Olarn said.

"The government should send samples of the old rice to agencies for scientific tests to reassure the public rather than using this kind of political stunt," he said.

Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin earlier said the government will send samples for lab tests to ensure its safety.

Weerachai Phutdhawong, a well-known organic chemistry expert who was asked by one media outlet to test samples taken from warehouses in Surin, claims to have found aflatoxins on the rice. Aflatoxins have been associated with an increased risk of liver cancer.

"They [Pheu Thai] want to remove people's negative perception of the rice scheme. They are trying to show that accusations made against the scheme and the Yingluck administration were politically motivated," Mr Olarn said.

"People have reason to suspect the rice-eating stunt might be intended to achieve some result," he said.

Olarn: Ploy to bring back Yingluck

However, Mr Phumtham earlier insisted that his move to sell the decade-old rice was not aimed at getting Yingluck a retrial.

Yingluck remains in exile overseas, but rumours are circulating that she hopes to return home soon after her older brother Thaksin -- another convicted former prime minister -- returned last August. His jail term was then commuted, and he was paroled in February.


Warong Dechgitvigrom, chief adviser of the Thai Pakdee Party and the whistle-blower who exposed the rice-pledging scandal under the former Yingluck Shinawatra government, echoed the view that the government's bid to vouch for the old rice is actually a veiled attempt to achieve political gain.

"The rice-eating stunt was unnecessary. Anyone with common sense knows that 10-year-old rice is not fit for consumption.

"If the government thinks the rice can be sold, it should do so straight away. There is no need to politicise the issue," Dr Warong said.

"But they wanted to organise political events [the rice-eating stunts] to whitewash the rice-pledging scheme," he said.

"They are trying to show that the old rice is still safe to eat. But people don't believe them," Dr Warong said.

He added that auctions were held to sell the rice in 2014, 2015 and 2020, but the bid winners did not show up to receive the rice.

The Public Warehouse Organisation held another auction again early this year.

Bidders had to submit documents certifying their qualifications on Jan 31 and tender bids on Feb 8. But the auction was cancelled on Jan 30, Dr Warong said.

Warong: Buyers fail to show

Hurting reputation

Former red-shirt movement leader Jatuporn Prompan said the reputation of Thai rice, which has been built up for many years, will be damaged if the old rice is exported to other countries.

"If Thai rice cannot be sold abroad [as a result of the controversy over decade-old rice], the whole rice trading system in the country will collapse," he said.

Somporn Isvilanonda, an independent academic in agricultural economics and a former adviser to the Knowledge Network Institute of Thailand, told the Bangkok Post the government has made a big mistake in trying to sell the old rice because it has failed to consider food safety.

The rice-eating stunt was unnecessary. Instead, the government should send samples for lab tests for aflatoxin and chemical residues and let the public know the result.

"We suspect a hidden agenda. There may be political gains and business benefits involved," he said.

He also said international traders may raise questions about the safety of Thai rice overall if the old rice is exported.

The Thailand Consumers Council (TCC) previously said it needs to get samples of the 10-year-old rice for a quality check to see if it is free from harmful residue.

Somporn: Food safety folly

TCC secretary-general Saree Aungsomwang said the TCC has requested samples of the 10-year-old rice from the Commerce Ministry for a quality check to see if it is free from harmful residue, but the TCC has not received a response.

The TCC also requested the result of the rice check from the Department of Medical Sciences, she said.

"We may also carry out our own tests of rice in the market as we have learnt that some of the old rice was mixed with new grains and sold in the market," she said.

Saree: Ministry yet to hand out samples

Kotchakorn Chatboonluekot, a rice trader on Soi Sukhumvit 105, said she did not believe the claim by the commerce minister that the old rice is safe to eat.

Thanaphum Phetchawee, a rice farmer in Nakhon Pathom, said the decade-old rice is not safe for consumption as it has been fumigated several times over the past decade.

"Food vendors will not buy such rice to cook for their customers. If they do so, they will lose customers,'' he said.

Past its best: Workers unload rice sacks, stored under a controversial scheme by the Yingluck Shinawatra administration, during a quality check at a warehouse in Pathum Thani. (Photo: Pongpat Wongyala)

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