Four-and-a-half decades ago, Myanmar was the world’s leading rice exporter.
A military coup in 1962 followed by the introduction of socialism swiftly stifled free trade in Myanmar, allowing neighboring Thailand to take the top rice-exporter slot, which it has held ever since.
But populist polices in Thailand’s rice fields are slowly undermining its leading role in the trade.
Thailand is arguably unique in Asia. The country produces more than 18.1 million tonnes of rice per year, of which 9 million tonnes are consumed domestically. The remainder is exported.
“We grow rice for business,” said Chookiat Ophaswongse, president of the 90-year-old Thai Rice Exporters Association. “We’re not like other countries that grow rice because they want to be self-sufficient in food and just export the surplus.”
There are more than 200 members in the association, plus 50 to 60 other exporters who operate freely on the market.
Business has been good. Last year, during the so-called food crisis when India and Vietnam slapped bans on their own rice exports, Thailand shipped more than 9 million tonnes, earning the kingdom 200 billion baht (US$5.6 billion).
Business was especially good for a handful of rice exporters who succeeded in bidding for public rice stocks under the government’s paddy-pledging scheme, which has become a prime player on the Thai rice market over the past eight years.
Under the scheme, the government pays farmers a fixed price for their rice, which is stockpiled in millers’ warehouses and then auctioned off to exporters.
Introduced in 1980, the scheme initially guaranteed farmers rice prices at market levels to allow them to postpone sales to middlemen. Since 2001, after populist politician Thaksin Shinawatra became prime minister, the scheme’s goal was altered to stabilizing rice prices on the local market and boosting farmers’ incomes.
Although admirable in principle, the application of the scheme has proven corruption-prone and advantageous mainly to big exporters and large, prosperous farmers. Furthermore, it has undermined Thailand’s reputation for high-quality rice and skewered the market system.
For instance, this year, because of high prices offered under Thailand’s paddy-pledging system, Thailand’s 100 percent B grade white rice is being priced at US$575 per tonne on the export market, compared with Vietnam’s US$410.
Thailand’s rice exports during the first six months of this year reached 3.7 million tonnes, down 27 percent compared with last year’s shipments, while Vietnam’s rice exports hit 3.4 million tonnes, up 56 percent year-on-year.
Vietnam has kept its prices down partly because it faces tough competition from Pakistan, Cambodia and Myanmar, all of which sell lower-quality rice than Thailand.
That reputation for high-quality rice is being swiftly undermined by the government’s paddy-pledging scheme, which is encouraging Thailand’s neighbors to smuggle their rice into Thailand to benefit from the higher local price.
“Every year, at least 500,000 tons [453,500 tonnes] is coming across the border into Thailand,” Chookiat said. “This is huge.”
It is likely to get even bigger next year when rice is included in the ASEAN Free Trade Agreement, which is to impose low import taxes on the regional rice trade.
“The quality of Thai rice has dropped, partly because of the smuggled rice from neighboring countries and partly because our own farmers don’t care about quality anymore because whatever they grow, they can sell to the government,” Chookiat said.