Monday, January 20, 2014

Thailand: Vote-Buying Rice Scam Collapses - Farmers in Need of a Solution

Can self-sufficiency + technology break this cycle of precarious, servile dependency?

Image: Rice farmers have gone now nearly half a year with-
out subsidy payments from the current regime. Many will
most likely never be paid in an ill-conceived vote-buying
scam that was doomed to fail before it was even
January 20, 2014 (ATN) ภาษาไทยอ่านที่นี่ - Thai PBS has reported in their article, "Rice policy committee terminates rice-pledging scheme," that: 
The National Rice Policy Committee decided to terminate its rice pledging scheme which is due to expire end of February 2014 as it does not want to commit further burden to the government. 
The decision was made at the meeting of the committee of which the caretaker prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra is the chairperson. 
The meeting did not discuss how to raise [funds] to finance the scheme but reached a resolution not to extend the scheme which expires end of next month.
Thai PBS would also report the status of delayed payments to farmers by the regime, now approaching 6 months: 
They insisted that the bank’s liquidity could not be used to pay for farmers except money deriving from rice sales. 
However the bank has a remedy measure to help farmers by providing 10 billion baht soft loan for farmers to borrow with a charge of 7% as interest. 
Each farmer will be allowed to borrow not more than 20% of the face value on their rice vouchers. For farmers who still default their debt repayment, the bank will give a one year extension for the loan repayment with no fine.
Rice farmers have turned their rice over to warehouses already, but have not received the money promised. Worse yet, they most likely never will, with the regime offering them loans instead. This is perceived by many as "theft," and while the regime insists its policies be judged by the voters, theft requires court proceedings, not sham elections

While some may feel vindicated after having long predicted the inevitable and disastrous failure of Thaksin Shinawatra's ill-conceived vote-buying "rice scheme," now that it has collapsed, rice farmers are left in disarray, facing debt and the loss of their livelihood. While they join anti-regime protests in increasing numbers, the opposition must ensure that solutions to their increasing problems - both short-term and long-term - are formulated in turn. 

Immediately, an interim government would need to solve the dilemma Thaksin Shinawatra's regime has left rice farmers in. This will have to be done with financial assistance the opposition is already calculating, but is only a short-term solution. Longer-term solutions will require something much more substantial and sustainable.

Self-Sufficiency Vs. Servile Dependency on Government

Fiercely independent and nationalistic, and being the only nation in Southeast Asia to avoid colonization, Thailand's sovereignty has been protected for over 800 years by its revered monarchy. The current dynasty, the House of Chakri, has reigned nearly as long as America has existed as a nation and the current king is regarded as the equivalent of a living "Founding Father." And just as it has for 800 years, the Thai Monarchy today provides the most provocative and meaningful answer to the threats facing the Kingdom - including economic ruination and poverty. 

The answer of course is self-sufficiency. Self-sufficiency as a nation, as a province, as a community and as a household. This concept is enshrined in the Thai King's "New Theory" or "self-sufficiency economy" and mirrors similar efforts found throughout the world to break the back of the oppression and exploitation that results from an interdependent globalized system created by immense corporate-financier monopolies.

 Image: A vision of self-sufficiency in Thailand. Agrarian values and the self-reliance they engender are the hallmarks of real freedom. 

STEP 1: The foundation of the self-sufficiency economy is simply growing your own garden and providing yourself with your own food. This is portrayed on the back right-hand side of every 1,000 baht Thai banknote as a picture of a woman tending her garden. 

STEP 2: The next step is producing surplus that can be traded for income, which in turn can be used to purchase technology to further enhance your ability to sustain yourself and improve your lifestyle.

Image: The Thai 1000 baht banknote. Left is one of the many dams controlling floods and producing electricity throughout the Kingdom. Center is the current King of Thailand. Right is a depiction of a local garden providing food in a self-sufficient manner. 

STEP 3: A third step is now possible - local technology cooperatives, sometimes called "hackerspaces," "makerspaces," or "Fab Labs" (fabrication laboratories created by MIT), offer a space where people can study, learn, teach, and work on technology for a variety of purposes. Everything from entrepreneurship and the founding of tech-driven SME's, to solving local problems and education can be accomplished with these cooperatives. 

With people providing themselves their own sustenance and earning income from diversified agricultural activity, the introduction of technology and the skills necessary to utilize it, can further expand economic activity into non-agricultural sectors. 

People with the knowledge, skills, and tools to physically shape the world around them, do not need to depend on others "elected" to do it for them. They do not need to gamble their lives and livelihoods on promises made by dubious politicians, but can take into their own hands their fate and fortunes, which would seem the very essence of true freedom. 

Technology as Real Empowerment 

Bringing this sort of technology to rural people, enabling people to create their own technology rather than just employ it, is not just a concept on paper for tomorrow, but is a reality of today. MIT Professor Dr. Neil Gershenfeld has developed the "fabrication laboratory" or "Fab Lab." The Fab Lab is a microfactory that can "make almost anything." His Fab Lab has since been replicated all over the world, especially in far-flung rural locations, in what he calls the personal fabrication revolution. It aims at turning a world of dependent consumers into independent designers and producers.

Video: Dr. Neil Gershenfeld presents his Fab Lab at TED. 


Dr. Gershenfeld in his own words articulates the problem of finding support amongst institutions and governments, stating that individuals are very enthusiastic about this revolution "but it breaks their organizational boundaries. In fact it is illegal for them, in many cases, to equip ordinary people to create rather than consume technology."

Dr. Gershenfeld goes on to encapsulate the true potential of his Fab Labs by stating, "the other 5 billion people on the planet aren't just technical "sinks," they are "sources." The real opportunity is to harness the inventive power of the world to locally design and produce solutions to local problems." Dr. Gershenfeld concludes by conceding he thought such a possibility was 20 years off, but "it's where we are today," noting the success his Fab Labs are already having around the world.

Image: The interior of a "Fab Lab" in Amsterdam, featuring a array of personal manufacturing technology.


Dr. Gershenfeld's message resonates with the current culture of Thailand and the ambitions of the "self-sufficiency economy." In many ways, Thailand's patchwork of micro-businesses, already successfully by-passing capital intensive centralized production, vindicates the work and optimism of Dr. Gershenfeld. The technical possibility for this to change the world is already a reality, but Dr. Gershenfeld himself concedes that the biggest obstacle is overcoming social engineering - in other words - creating a paradigm shift in the minds of the population to meet the technical paradigm shift that has already taken place. 

To do this, people must realize that the power to change their lives lies not in stuffing ballots into boxes on election day, but within their own hands, minds, and within local institutions like Fab Labs and hackerspaces. 

Bringing Economic Diversity Through Technology to Rural Farmers 

For Thais, they do not need to wait for MIT to bring technology cooperatives to rural communities. This is something that can and is already being done with independent hackerspaces all around the world. In Bangkok, there is already at least two - CITEC & Bangkok Hackerspace. For now they are mainly IT and electronic centric, but augmenting them with 3D printers, CNC equipment, laser cutters and other means of design and fabrication is just a matter of will and time. 

The most relevant solutions to come out of a technology cooperative may look a lot like the Open Source Ecology's (OSE) "Global Village Construction Set." Unlike many uses of the term "global," the concept behind OSE is not a centralized solution, but rather the leveraging of open source hardware on a localized level to achieve a "greater distribution of the means of production," with tools that would "last a lifetime, not designed for obsolescence." 

Below is the 2011 TED talk given by OSE founder and director, Marcin Jakubowski, who set out to prove that "industrial productivity can be achieved on a small scale," through the use of simple, DIY-built tools ranging from brick presses to tractors and beyond. Jakubowski himself was a struggling farmer who found himself constantly falling behind just trying to break even. Dependency on technology and supplies offered by big businesses left him in spiraling debt - a story not unfamiliar to many Thais. 

Jakubowski hopes to "unleash massive amounts of human potential," through empowering people directly with the knowledge and tools necessary for they themselves to build the world they choose to live in, not merely pulling levers in a polling booth for corrupt politicians to decide for them under the guise of "democracy." The OSE project has continued to grow since the 2011 TED talk. It is not only OSE that people should study and raise awareness for - but the concept that drives OSE - namely open source hardware, and the profound implications it has for empowering individuals and communities. 

Image: Typical political solutions have lofty mission statements, vague goals, and what seem to be perpetually postponed payoffs. The Open Source Ecology's "Global Village Construction Set" has real hardware they have designed, built, tested, and now share with the world for free - in what is part of a burgeoning open source hardware movement. 

Accelerating this paradigm shift requires simply putting down our political crusades and picking up pragmatic solutions instead. The key to improving our socioeconomic prospects lies not in electing representatives to carry out vague political agendas, but through physical production, moving dirt, cutting metal, and harnessing electrons. 

OSE has a website, a Wiki with information on a growing number of open source designs and potential concepts, as well as a 300 page .pdf book containing all the information on the prototypes already built and in use by OSE members.

Hackerspaces in both Bangkok and spread into Thailand's rural provinces using an open source franchise model, could help introduce the skills of design and fabrication along with the tools necessary for farmers to augment their current activities and create the means to diversify and expand their economic activity. This includes producing local milling equipment to cut out profiteering middlemen and other means of processing their produce to distribute and profit from on their own. 

To begin a hackerspace, all one needs are friends, a space, some tables and chairs, along with your own computers. From there, knowledge can be shared and IT skills imparted on each other and interested members of the community. Hackerspaces usually fund themselves through monthly memberships and may also augment income with classes and workshops. The space can also be used for traditional tutoring services. 

As time goes on, kits and basic tools can be brought in and offered to members. Eventually, through partnerships with local and national industry, community members, and thoughtful investment of monthly dues, a fully equipped hackerspace can be constructed and a wider range of meaningful activities carried out. 

With an open source franchise - one need not work to open hundreds of hackerspaces all over Thailand and implement projects like the "Global Village Construction Set" themselves - with the "DNA" of the project put out into the public for free, others can replicate successful hackerspaces already in operation, and spread across Thailand developing in parallel. For rural provinces, hackerspaces might be started in small cities and schools, before branching out further. 

Understanding the potential social progress that can come from hackerspaces, and viewing them not as "clubs," but as localized institutions of education, training, production, and many other essential services once the  monopoly of centralized politicians, can open the door to unprecedented local and personal empowerment. 

The Final Goal 

Ultimately the goal is the creation of a population that has the skills and tools needed to solve their own problems pragmatically, and most importantly - permanently. There would be no line waiting for government handouts that were never coming. In such a paradigm, rice farmers would have already augmented their rice production with other means to bolster both their monthly wages and their quality of life. 

Low rice prices would be of lesser concern if they were able to collaborate and engage in other economic activities that were more profitable. With access to IT technology and the training to use it, market research, connecting with potential customers both locally and beyond, and identifying new opportunities would be a simple task - compared to now, where this would be unthinkable for many rural Thais. 

Again, each village would not need to figure out how to do this on their own. A central, open repository of knowledge and successes from around the country (or world even) would be available online for others to search and duplicate. 

It is a longer-term solution that cannot be implemented overnight, but if Thais began working on it now, it could begin benefiting people before the year's end - even if it were only at first, imparting pragmatic IT skills to help educate and connect rural farmers and craftsmen with potential markets and opportunities. 

While the current political struggle aims at toppling a despotic regime that has squatted on the rural poor for over a decade leaving them as needy and dependent as ever, we must focus not only on how to immediately dress the wounds inflicted by the regime, but also the long-term rehabilitation from a decade of damage it has carried out.

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