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Phumtham Wechayachai’s Bold Move: Selling Decade-Old Rice to Revive Thailand’s Agricultural Glories

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In a move that has tongues wagging and keyboards clicking across Thailand and beyond, Deputy Prime Minister and Commerce Minister Phumtham Wechayachai recently ushered a throng of eager journalists into the heart of Surin to unveil a sight many thought they’d never see: warehouses brimming with rice as seasoned as a decade. This revelation comes amidst loud whispers and disdainful head shakes at the government’s bold pitch to sell these aged grains—a scheme critics are quick to label a desperate attempt to cleanse the stains of Yingluck Shinawatra’s rice-pledging debacle.

The plan? To court the global stage with rice that’s seen ten years roll by, at the risk of tarnishing the golden reputation of Thailand’s beloved grains. Yet, amidst the uproar, Wechayachai stands firm, envisioning auction blocks where 15,000 tonnes of this vintage rice will transform into a handsome sum of approximately 270 million baht, all while putting a dent in the mounting storage costs that gnaw away at 380,000 baht each month. A bold undertaking that sees Africa as its final destination.

Early this month, in a performance that could very well rival the culinary escapades of celebrity chefs, Wechayachai, with a spoon in hand and an audience of reporters at his back, dove into a plate of this controversial rice—cooked, no less, from the very stocks he plans to auction. A demonstration not just of edibility but of the lengths to which he’d go to prove his point. As per his guidance, a mere 15 rinses in water render this ancient rice ready for the dinner table. The rice, according to Wechayachai, has been cradled in preservation, with regular fumigation rounds and warehouses sealed tighter than a drum, keeping the avian audience and rain’s curious fingers at bay.

Yet, not all are convinced by this grainy spectacle, with voices rising to brandish the act as a health hazard, given the rice’s intimate history with fumigation—a ritual performed religiously over a decade. This spectacle of rice dining eerily mirrors an episode from Thailand’s political theatre in 2004 when Thaksin Shinawatra partook in public poultry consumption to calm the fears storm-raised by bird flu.

Lost in this rice saga is its origin story—a tale of ambition that saw the Yingluck administration’s rice-pledging scheme balloon into a historical headache, leaving a constellation of losses in its wake. Fast forward through a dramatic escape from justice by Yingluck, and the script finds the current administration sifting through the remnants, seeking to recoup losses and perhaps, rewrite narratives.

In a plot twist that reads more soap opera than agricultural report, the government’s rice maneuvers are whispered to be more than just a quest for fiscal recuperation—being pegged by some as a chess move in Thailand’s grand political game. Critics, scholars, and organic chemists lend their voices to the chorus, questioning the rice’s safety, the stunt’s necessity, and the implicated whitewashing of past political missteps.

Enter stage left, Phumtham’s insistence that this old rice auction is nothing but a straightforward bid to lighten financial burdens, devoid of any ulterior motives to sway judicial tides in Yingluck’s favor. Yet, speculation simmers around Yingluck’s anticipated return, stirring the pot further in this gastronomic drama.

Amid this tumult, voices like Warong Dechgitvigrom and Jatuporn Prompan rise to decry the potential fallout, fearing the shadow this decade-old rice saga might cast on Thailand’s sterling grain legacy. Others, like Somporn Isvilanonda and the Thailand Consumers Council, push for transparency, demanding tests that might lift the veil of doubt surrounding these ancient stocks.

As the debate rages, from the quiet fields tended by farmers like Thanaphum Phetchawee to the bustling lanes of Soi Sukhumvit where traders like Kotchakorn Chatboonluekot ply their trade, one thing remains clear: Thailand’s rice, no matter its age, continues to stir the pot, weaving a tale that’s as intricate as it is fascinating, leaving us all hungry to see what the next course brings.

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