Thailand's sticky rice predicament

Farmers wearing face masks protest outside the temporary office of Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in Bangkok on February 17, 2014.


THAILAND has ample company in the use of agricultural subsidies as a partisan tool in politics, by distorting international commodity trade to favour home producers. But unfortunately, it has chosen strange company to keep, given the high costs of such programmes.

In Japan, the farm vote is a pillar in the Liberal Democratic Party's longevity. In the United States, targeted price supports in farm states influence presidential and congressional elections.

Principal Bric nations China and Brazil have joined in the game, seeing that the US and European Union will never abandon agricultural protections in trade negotiations. In Europe, subsidies are even claimed as a heritage enabler by preserving the character of the countryside.

Thailand is somewhat different in that populist measures deployed to win political support may cause the Puea Thai government's downfall, where all other opposition attempts at insurrection have failed. It will be a sad day for democracy if it happened.

Opponents of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra are determined to have her ousted for corruption in the rice subsidy scheme. In most countries where subsidies are political stock-in- trade, opposing parties are united in their stand that these are good for the country.

Governments change but these benefits have endured. It does not seem relevant to supporters that these could be counterproductive in the long run, as the International Monetary Fund has pointed out.

Deficiencies of globalisation like income disparities and wealth concentration in the hands of the few actually have improved their appeal.

This is not to say that the opposition Democrat Party of Thailand and other establishment parties would never dangle farm inducements in other forms, besides paying 50 per cent over the market rate for rice, if they ruled the country again.

After all, rural Thailand controls the vote. Puea Thai has cultivated this constituency astutely with not only rice price supports but also health care and infrastructure.

It will not be to Thailand's credit if Ms Yingluck is made to vacate office on what would look to disinterested observers like backdoor methods when her opponents could not defeat her in an election. It should be noted rice growers who had staged protests were mostly from the Democrat-controlled south.

But Ms Yingluck should know she is facing the biggest threat to her legitimacy, as corruption is a catch-all hook in Thai politics.

Matters might not be so dire if the world price of the grain had not fallen and the national stockpile was selling faster. The rice issue, unfortunately, is yet another symptom of a no-holds-barred political culture that pains the country's admirers to observe.

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