The Dictator feels he is under threat. It isn’t the student activists. It isn’t really opposition politicians. Rather, it is the weight of rice growers.
In addition to its cultural significance, rice growing has a remarkable economic significance, even in days where manufactured exports dominate. Thailand has long been one of the world’s top rice exporters. It remains so. Hence, rice has long been politicized.
Back in the late 1970s, when there was another crisis, there was talk of rice farmers being the backbone of the nation. When General Prem Tinsulanonda became never-elected premier, he mouthed support for farmers but did little. Predictably, an uptick in prices saved his political bacon.
But long-term trends in commodity prices seem downward, so when farmers get agitated, self-appointed premier General Prayuth Chan-ocha gets politically agitated and wary.
Having now plagiarized previous rice subsidy and pledging schemes, bellowed “plot” and sent out his armed minions to threaten millers (and farmers), he’s now embarking on a second round of (non-)populism. The first may cost between 20 and 127 billion baht.
General Prayut Chan-ocha has “called an urgent meeting with the National Rice Policy Committee to draw up relief measures for rice farmers before a new supply of grains hits the market this month.” That’s because his first scheme only covered hom mali growers. Another avalanche of rice comes to harvest a bit later.
The suicide of a farmer indicated a political time bomb for the military junta.
This is potentially a challenge like no other that the junta has faced. Coercion is unlikely to work as it has for smaller groups of political opponents.