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Thai gov't stands by rice scheme despite doubts

Publication Date : 20-09-2012


The Thai Cabinet on Tuesday endorsed in principle a second round of the government's rice price-pledging scheme for the upcoming harvest season that would require as much as 450 billion baht (US$14.5 billion).

The decision was made despite questions of irregularities involving the first phase of the controversial project, in which cost as much as 300 billion baht, and suspicions that certain politicians in power would benefit from the project.

Details of the project will still need to be worked out by Commerce Minister Boonsong Teriyaphirom, who is in charge of it, and his colleagues from Agriculture and Finance ministries. The project will require endorsement by a screening committee before it can be forwarded to the Cabinet for the final go-ahead.

The government earlier put a brake on the first phase of its rice-pledging scheme after reports of irregularities. Critics said certain figures in Pheu Thai Party made personal gains from this project, as well as others being implemented under this administration.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, in an apparent bid to show that her government was serious about tackling graft, recently appointed her deputy Chalerm Yoobamrung to head a panel charged with investigating and examining corruption allegations. But no evident progress has been made.

Politicians from the opposition Demo-crat Party have attacked the government's rice scheme and are expected to focus on it when grilling the administration in the censure debate likely to be called soon.

Moreover, the National Anti-Corruption Commission opposed the project in a written statement to the government, pointing to loopholes that could allow corruption and waste of the taxpayer's money.

However, the government has been undaunted in implementing the policy, which was a Pheu Thai election-campaign promise - as opposed to the price-guarantee rice-subsidy programme by the previous Democrat-led government.

The Yingluck administration has been waiting for the opposition and criticism against its price-pledging policy to diminish. In mid-August, amid a strong wave of criticism, the Commerce Ministry sought Cabinet endorsement for the project's second phase, but a decision was postponed until this Tuesday. A government source said time was running out, as the second phase needs to start in October to be in time for the next harvest season.

"The prime minister was worried. She wanted to wait until after the opposition's censure debate, and the criticism was expected to lessen. But the opposition seems to have made no moves about the censure debate, so she has decided to go ahead," the source said.

A recent opinion poll showed farmers appeared to be supporting the programme. It was found that 86.5 per cent of farmers surveyed wanted the government to implement either a price-pledging or a price-subsidy scheme. And more than 35.4 per cent of the respondents said they were more satisfied with the price-pledging option because they could get more money and get paid faster.

To restore confidence in the pledging programme, Yingluck went to Phitsanulok last weekend to observe how the scheme was implemented. She announced that computer technology would be used to record information obtained by the ministries of Interior, Agriculture and Finance, and the Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives to determine if anything wrong. However, such plans cannot guarantee that there will be no graft.

Yingluck admitted some people abused legal loopholes for "systematic corruption". But, she added that probes into irregularities should not be a reason for the project to be delayed.

She will then need a good explanation for the taxpayer if her government's price-pledging programme is marred by irregularities again.

US$1 = 30. 8 baht


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