Even though the government promised it would pay a good price for his rice, Mana Nutchyoo hasn’t seen half the money. “It’s in the system,” he said hopefully, held up by the turmoil sparked by opposition protests in Bangkok, 90 minutes to the south. But even if the political crisis eases, Nutchyoo may never see the rest of the money: the government is having serious trouble funding its rice-buying scheme and other pro-poor subsidies. If the fiscal crisis worsens the “Red Shirts” could end up turning on their government patrons.After Yingluck Shinawatra, sister to the ousted Thaksin, won the 2011 election, she set up a vast government rice-buying scheme that promised farmers about $500 per ton of fresh rice, even though milled rice sells on the market for $450 or less. From a budgetary perspective, it’s been a disaster, the FT reports:
Amid growing criticism of the policy from the International Monetary Fund and other observers, huge rice stockpiles have built up and the government has lost $4bn a year officially – and perhaps almost double that, according to other estimates.
But as long as they get their money the farmers have loved the scheme, of course, and most remain supportive of the Shinawatras and their allies. That support might be unravelling as the money to fund the rice and other subsidies dries up.
Many farmers in Ayutthaya and elsewhere in Thailand say they have not been paid for their autumn harvest, amid signs the government has been having trouble funding the scheme. A bond issue in November aimed at raising 75bn baht struggled to generate half that amount.
An observer might expect the opposition “Yellow Shirts,” mostly middle class urbanites who have been protesting in Bangkok for weeks now, to take advantage of what appear to be cracks in the government’s rural support. But that doesn’t seem to be the case. Suthep Thaugsuban, the firebrand opposition leader, wants to undermine Thailand’s democracy by setting up an unelected council of “good people” to run the country, and his supporters have made little effort to bring rural farmers over to their side. “I don’t think they really thought about this including people in Isaan or in the north because they still think that these people are not well educated,” a professor at a northeastern university told Voice of America. “The more they use this kind of tactic, the more they actually force the Red Shirts to become more united and Thaksin will become stronger and stronger.”“Let them keep saying we’re stupid,” echoes a Red Shirt leader. “They’ll die by their own words. Thailand has changed. We have our own middle class, and we’ll fight to protect democracy and make sure our voice is heard.”But the fiscal crisis is real, and the Shinawatra government may find its support drying up as fast as the money needed to keep buying rice from the farmers. Whether the government can find the money to keep its supporters happy will have an enormous effect on elections in February.