The government only has itself to blame for the rotten rice fiasco it is struggling to contain.
Considering that what is at stake is the country's top-ranking industry with an export value alone worth almost US$6 billion each year, the rice-pledging scheme is a classic example in what not to do in public policy communications.
This is not just to say that rice is the main staple for Thais. There is a sentimental and emotional attachment to rice and rice farming that is etched deep in the Thai psyche. Rice is not just something Thai people eat every day, but an object of respect.
In rice, Thai people see not just a staple food that keeps them alive another day but a continuity of their way of life and cultural identity.
It is not an exaggeration to say that there is a hidden element of sacredness and inviolability in the grains that we consume and sell.
Add to rice's international market value and its prominent status in the collective domestic mind the fact that rice farmers have always enjoyed substantial political lobbying power, and what we get is a sensitive issue that must be handled with utmost care.
Careful planning is needed, and precise implementation with frequent and truthful communication to the public is a must throughout the policy rollout.
None of this has happened with the rice pledging scheme, labelled as "ruinous" by The Wall Street Journal and a "botched" policy that "blew a big hole in [the Thai] economy" by CNN.
It's true the government did not come up with the plan - to buy rice at above-the-market prices and store it until global prices rise to the point it could make profit before releasing the stockpile - out of nothing. It was a careful plan, so to speak, but a totally reckless one.
The government should have known that while Thailand was the world's number one rice exporter, it did not hold a monopoly in the market.
The dream of withholding its supply, hoping to induce a scarcity that will drive up the price is just that - a dream.
The government had been warned repeatedly by rice traders, academics and experts, but it ignored the warnings.
Instead of giving the public information and fact-based assurances, the government, especially the Commerce Ministry which is the main driver of the project, chose to keep everything a secret.
That is already a bad thing in terms of public policy communication.
When the reality hit home in the form of a credit-negative warning by Moody's Investor Service and leaked reports about massive losses that the two-year-old policy has incurred, what did the government do?
It ditched the commerce minister and assured the public it would continue with the policy without saying how it will rectify pitfalls that have made the scheme unsuccessful.
Wait! The government actually made one revision. It announced it would lower the pledging price by 20% and limit the amount of pledged rice per household.
But then it went on to reverse the price-reduction decision one week after the announcement.
The government only added to the public confusion and insecurity with its flip-flop policy announcement.
Now comes the rotten-rice scandal that has forced all related government officials from Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra downwards to repeatedly assure the public that Thai rice is safe and not contaminated by bacteria, fungus or chemicals, as alleged especially in online and social media postings.
The government really should have known better and stemmed these mostly groundless accusations before they spread as widely as they did.
Rice consumers started to express their concern about rice safety, especially regarding grains that could come from the government's years-old stockpile, months ago.
What the government should have done is exactly what the Foundation for Consumers did a week ago, which is to have independent testing conducted on all rice brands and make the results available to the public.
The biggest problem, however, is that even now, after so many bad turns, the government does not seem to realise that it has to be more proactive and make some major corrections to its rice-pledging scheme and its fundamental concepts.
Even now, the public cannot see how the scheme will not stumble into the same pitfalls as it has in the past few years.
Having the prime minister eat freshly-cooked rice and proclaim that it is fragrant and delicious won't help.
Atiya Achakulwisut is Deputy Editor, Bangkok Post.
About the author
- Writer: Atiya Achakulwisut
Position: Deputy Editor (Day)