6 June 2024

Commerce Minister Phumtham Wechayachai has become increasingly belligerent towards critics questioning his claim that the last 15,000 tonnes of decade-old rice from the Yingluck Shinawatra government’s subsidy scheme is still fit to eat. The government wants to auction off the old rice to earn revenue.

Phumtham has threatened legal action against the critics, particularly veteran politician Warong Dechgitvigrom, accusing them of devaluing the global reputation of Thai rice.

Warong had earlier criticized Phumtham for leading a “rice-eating event” to prove the quality of the old stock.

Warong, now chairman of the royalist Thai Pakdee Party, blew the whistle on Yingluck’s controversial rice-pledging scheme while serving as an opposition Democrat MP.

After her government was ousted in the 2014 military coup, Yingluck and several of her Cabinet members were charged with corruption and malfeasance in connection with the scheme.

In August 2017, the Supreme Court’s Criminal Division for Political Officeholders sentenced Yingluck’s commerce minister to 42 years in prison and his deputy to 30 years for malfeasance in a fake government-to-government rice deal.

A month later, the self-exiled Yingluck was sentenced in absentia to five years in jail for negligence due to her failure to stop the deal.

Critics claim Phumtham’s recent rice-eating stunt was designed not just to banish safety fears but to also “whitewash” Yingluck so she could return to Thailand without serving prison time.

Yingluck is the youngest sister of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who is regarded as the de facto leader of the ruling Pheu Thai Party. Phumtham is a powerful figure in the party who also serves as deputy prime minister.

Thaksin returned to Thailand last August to face an eight-year sentence for crimes committed while in power but was handed a royal pardon before being released on bail from hospital detention after only six months.

Defender of Yingluck

Phumtham has rejected claims that chemicals used to preserve the old rice can cause cancer, insisting the grain would be polished to remove any residue.

However, academics and experts have expressed concern that the decade-old stock may be contaminated with fungus and germs, as well as carcinogenic pest-control agents.

Stored at two warehouses in northeastern Surin province for over 10 years, the 15,000-tonne stockpile is all that remains of some 18 million tonnes of rice left in government stock when Yingluck’s administration was toppled in May 2014.

The rice had been bought from farmers at government-guaranteed prices that were far higher than market prices.

Between 2011 and 2014, a total of 54.3 million tonnes of rice had been bought by the scheme for 857 billion baht, according to the Thailand Development Research Institute.

Phumtham, now 70, had sprung to Yingluck’s defense while serving as an opposition MP in April 2021. He insisted there was no evidence that the ex-PM was responsible for any wrongdoing in the rice-pledging scheme.

The allegations against Yingluck were simply a false pretext for the military to overthrow an elected government in 2014, he added.

Phumtham was born in Bangkok on December 5, 1953. He received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in political science from Chulalongkorn University, where he began his student activism.

Following the October 1976 massacre of student protesters at Thammasat University and the subsequent crackdown, Phumtham fled into the forest to join the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) in its armed struggle against the Thai government.

A disillusioned revolutionary

Three years later and now disillusioned with the CPT, he left to work for non-governmental organizations for the next decade.

In 2018, Phumtham told The Momentum that “state persecution” had forced him to flee into the forests along with many other students at the time.

“I had no choice. Three to four thousand of my friends [fellow students] were arrested and sent to jail,” he said.

After spending three years as a CPT fighter, he lost faith in communism as the answer to what he perceived as Thailand’s problems.

“I learned a lot of things in the forests. I found that changing society is not as easy as you think. When we were students, we believed it was not too difficult as long as we had determination. But in reality, that was not the case,” Phumtham said.

“Changing society is not an emotional matter. It is about a power structure composed of various vested interests and social classes. The issue is more complex than what you see.”

In 1998, Phumtham co-founded the Thai Rak Thai Party with Thaksin and others. He served as deputy transport minister in Thaksin’s government from March 2005 until it was overthrown by a military coup in September 2006.

Thai Rak Thai was dissolved by court order in 2007 for electoral fraud, with Phumtham and other party executives banned from politics for five years.

He returned to politics in 2012 by joining Pheu Thai, serving as its secretary general until July 2019. He became the party’s deputy leader in December 2022 and served until October last year.

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk