Prapatpon’s struggle exemplifies the difficulty finding viable solutions to drought, even after the military government approved 11.2 billion baht of measures last year to help farmers, including encouraging them to plant crops that need less water and giving them longer to repay loans. It budgets spending 10.1 billion baht in the year starting May 1 to stabilize prices and reeducate farmers, including producers of Thailand’s famous fragrant jasmine rice.Rice, a staple entrenched in Thai culture, is being targeted because flood-irrigated paddy uses a lot of water — sometimes two and a half times the amount needed to grow a crop of wheat or maize.
With the Bhumibol and Sirikit dams, the main water sources for the country’s central plain, the lowest since 1994, the government wants to reduce the country’s rice production to 27 million tons in the planting season starting May, a quarter less than the five-year average.
For more than a decade, Thai rice farmers were cushioned by subsidies. The support won rural votes for former prime ministers Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Yingluck. It also led to a 20 percent jump in rice production and a record 17.8 million-ton stockpile that the current government is struggling to sell.
Cutting output will reverse a global oversupply that’s depressed international prices, but coaxing farmers to plant less rice requires careful diplomacy.
Rice farmers have played a central role in Thailand’s last decade of political unrest, turning out en mass to support the Shinawatra family, whose allied governments have twice been ousted in coups despite winning every national election since 2001.
Junta leader and now Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha has taken to the airwaves repeatedly to urge farmers to plant less rice. With maximum temperatures typically peaking in April and the monsoon not due for months, the military government is luring farmers back to school to speed up change.
The government earmarked enough money for 250 farmers to attend 15 days of training over three months in Sangkaburi, a district with 8,000 farming families. Because there were four times as many applicants, participants — who are paid 200 baht a day to attend — were selected randomly in a lucky draw.
“We have a limited budget,” Finance Minister Apisak said. “They need to help themselves as well. Not just survive on government money.”
While some farmers are becoming frustrated with their economic situation, there isn’t a lot they can do to express their feelings publicly under military rule, said David Streckfuss, a Thailand-based academic and the author of books on Thai law and politics.
“It doesn’t seem like the economic welfare of laborers or small-scale farmers is a huge priority for the government,” he said, adding that any political tension in rural areas isn’t a current threat to security. “The effects of a diminishing economy is not something that is easily going to create a spark and set something off — at least not yet. It’s just a slow burn.”
For farmer-turned-student Chaiyapoj Phak-on, the past two years have been a harsh contrast to the heady days of the previous government’s income-propping rice-buying program, which he called “the best time of my life.”
While he’d still prefer to grow rice, the 50-year-old said the government’s training has offered him encouragement. “There are other ways to make a living,” he said. “There is hope.”