BANGKOK, Thailand — Against the backdrop of protests to oust the Thai government–peppered with spasmodic occurrences of violence–another discontented group whose interests have been adversely affected by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s premiership is the rice farmers.
In 2011, the Thai government showed up to the global market and played with the supply and demand system. Hoping to garner more votes from small size farmers (one of their main supporters) in the case that their rice-pledging scheme succeeded, the government promised to pay the farmers some 50% above market price via stockpiling the rice (withholding it from being exported) in order to raise the global demand. According to this plan, it was supposed to be a win-win situation for everyone except international consumers, who are not eligible to vote in Thailand. But like death, taxes and trans-fat, nobody can escape from the pantocratic rules of the market. Soon, the Thai government learned that the global market has a power and natural course of its own.
Who are the true losers in this cautionary tale? The farmers.
Perhaps the naïveté on part of the Thai government and the inexperience of the prime minister and her ministers—so few of whom were chosen by merit—led them to think that other countries are incapable of growing rice. But it did not take long for international buyers to quickly find suppliers in other countries: India, Pakistan, Vietnam and Myanmar—the list of places that export rice could hyperbolically go on forever. And as a proverbial cherry on top, the prices of grains worldwide have been on the decline, making it even more of an impossibility to pay the farmers the promised price. The rice, however, was already handed over to the government.
Already worn out and battered by a devastating flood that ravaged the Central Plains (Thailand’s rice bowl) this failed rice-pledging scheme contributed to dragging Thailand down from its global position as the number one rice exporter leaving it trailing behind India and Vietnam, respectively. The scheme’s botched price surgery nearly halved Thailand’s annual export.
Many farmers since 2011 have still not received their promised money from the government, not even at pre-hiked up price. Some rice farming families are left without rice to even feed themselves. After years of broken promises by the government to pay them their due (as farming requires capital and operation costs) helplessly desperate farmers have resorted to taking out non-formal loans—also known as shark loans—which are commonly attached to exorbitant interest rates.
Pressured by the need to repay their debts and to earn a living frustrated farmers moved into Bangkok to stage their own protests demanding that the government pay them their pledged money. The prime minister, already struggling to hold onto power with anti-government protests, is facing yet another problem.
Ostensibly portraying itself as a champion of the poor, Miss Shinawatra’s populist government’s legitimacy is threatened to its very (purported) raison d’être by the ongoing rice scandal. With her administration already making very few friends amongst the middle class and the bourgeoisie of Bangkok, and almost thoroughly disapproved of in the touristic peninsular south, the unremunerated farmers could prove to be the straw that breaks the back of Miss Shinawatra’s populist camel. Many of the unpaid upland farmers–who were once her and her ousted brother Thaksin Shinawatra’s avid and loyal supporters–are now demanding her resignation with loudspeakers right in front of her office.
The delayed payments are already taking their toll on the farmers both financially and psychologically. The Thai Department of Mental Health has already concluded that nine farmers who recently committed suicide did so—at least partially—under the stress of having to pay back their shark loans while having their promised rice payments constantly postponed by the government. Some have even joined the preexisting and separate protest in Bangkok against the government out of desperation.
Thus, the government’s failure to pay the rice farmers, despite the ironic fact that in 2013 it proposed a $62 billion USD high-speed railway project, should at least raise some questions regarding who truly are the beneficiaries of Miss Shinawatra’s government. The discourse often perpetuated by the international media and experts on Thailand–to the point of becoming cliché–is that of class conflict. Since the beginning of anti-government protests in late 2013—attended mainly by the residents of Bangkok and those from the south, the opposition party’s heartland—many have been trying to force the socio-political polarization in Thailand into the mould of an archetypal class struggle. The urban-rural/rich-poor dichotomy is an argument which has been instrumental to the popularity and legitimacy of Miss Shinawatra’s premiership, and is often used as a justification for the incompetency with which the government has been administering the country.
Nevertheless, the desperate plight and the demands of the rice farmers should not be muddled with the opposition-led anti-government protests. If the government has to resign it should do so out of responsibility for its imprudent administration of the country and not due to the pressure asserted upon it by the opposition party who did not win the general election. The current predicaments suffered by the farmers were brought about by the government and thus, it is only logical that the latter must be held accountable.
The entry of the poor and abjectly swindled farmers into Bangkok’s street politics should serve as a sobering denouement to the political standoff. Their plight shows that the image of an altruistic patron of the once neglected upland poor–paraded by the regime since its inception during the administration of the prime minister’s brother–is but a false façade.
Unfortunately, this masqueraded image has also been inadvertently picked up by regional experts as well as innumerable ultracrepidarian commentators thereof. Thus, not surprisingly, a mere discursive rhetoric is materializing into a fait accompli conflict in the mindscapes of international observers and commentators.
Lastly, it is painfully paradoxical though not at all surprising—due to the venal nature of the political culture—that in Thailand, where rice is the main staple, rice farmers are earning the lowest incomes among Southeast Asian rice farmers despite its status as one of the region’s more well-to-do countries. High production costs and low productivity are some of the reasons. Furthermore, the exploitation of the poor’s political supports and votes by both sides of the political poles is a poignant reminder that in vertically imposed democracies such as Thailand’s, the demos half of the term has historically been too poorly equipped to benefit from its fruits. Hence Thailand’s democracy lies exposed to misuse by unabashedly populist regimes.
The abrupt and precocious nature of the advent of “democracy” in Thailand—although having taken place almost a century ago—had left its indelible mark on the country’s political landscape that until now remains maliciously palpable. As for the current Thai government, the issue is no longer simply about rice but about mismanagement, incompetency and the yoking of both the demos (people) and the kratos (power) to undermine democracy itself.