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Will he still be 'walking tall'?

March 23, 2001

PRAPAT Panyachatiraksa once fought against the state.

But now, he is on the other side of the fence.

He has taken charge of the country's agricultural policy and he must prove it is not just a populist programme, but a genuine undertaking that serves the very people he sought to defend during his young, ideological days.

For a man once perceived as a threat to national security, Prapat's rise to become deputy agriculture minister was a sweet vindication.

The same man whose ideas were once dismissed as staunchly leftist has become the author of Thai Rak Thai's agricultural reform policy, which appealed to the Thai majority and resulted in a landslide general election win for his party.

Thai Rak Thai's selling points, such as the three-year debt-suspension programme for farmers, the Bt1 million village fund, and the one-tambol-one-product programme have Prapat's fingerprints all over them.

Once an orange farmer living a frugal life in Lampang province, Prapat has indeed made a long journey of self-transformation.

Prapat's image of "Walking Tall" still forms a vivid mind's-eye image for the generation of Thais that grew up in the days of the democracy movement, led by students during the early 1970s.

As a student activist at Kasetsart University in 1973, Prapat confronted and challenged soldiers armed with rifles and tanks with nothing but a big stick in his hands.

A picture of the incident made front-page news across the country, and became the symbol of the democracy movement against the Thanom-Prapat regime.

A movie called Walking Tall was screening during those heady days, and featured the main character using a big stick to fight for justice.

Prapat was immediately dubbed "Walking Tall", or Ai Karn Yao.

After the 1973 incident came the political bloodshed of 1976, which effectively closed the door on the promising lives of Prapart and so many bright students of his generation.

His high-profile role in the student movement made it difficult for him to get a job.

"I was rejected several times because they [potential employers] thought that I was a threat, a socialist, a danger to national security," he said.

A brief stint with the Forestry Department was a disaster for Prapat - he was sacked.

That was the last straw, Prapat decided to go upcountry.

There was no place for him in the city, he thought. He and his wife decided to go back to farming, struggling year-in and year-out.

In the late 1980s, after making some money from construction work, Prapat spent his savings to start his Shogun orange farm in Lampang.

"I picked the orange because it is the only [rural] product in which the supplier rules the market," he said.

Everybody thought he was crazy to have invested in an orange orchard, particularly one that was to be developed without using modern pesticides and chemicals.

Prapat worked hard and did his own research.

The farm became successful, and he now owns more than 300 rai of orange plantations.

"It is the world's only orange farm that is free from pesticides," he says proudly.

The farm ran at a loss in the first season, because the orange's peels were coarse.

After a while, though, word spread that his oranges were toxin-free.

Kicked along by media coverage, Prapat's oranges became famous - a sell-out.

Because of his long association with local farmers, Prapat said he was familiar with their plight.

Mostly, Thai farmers are saddled with debts.

And they predominantly owe money to the Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives.

About 4.88 million Thai farmers from a total of 5.5 million are heavily indebted to the BAAC.

Their debts increase by 20 per cent annually.

That effectively entrenches Thai farmers in a vicious cycle of debt from which they cannot break free.

Because they are so heavily indebted, they cannot expand production, or improve their lot.

In 1999, Prapat faxed a three-page policy statement to Thai Rak Thai leader Thaksin Shinawatra.

He had been thinking about, and researching, rural problems for the better part of his life.

Thaksin was immediately interested in having Prapat join his party, because he knew him from when they were both members of the Palang Dharma Party.

Thaksin did not pay due attention to his fax.

That was until one day when Thaksin needed to deliver his views about agriculture - he scrambled for Prapat's fax.

Prapat's writing was soon incorporated into Thai Rak Thai's policy on agricultural reforms.

The concept of debt suspension for farmers came after.

It arose from Prapat's observation of the cyclical troubles from which farmers suffered.

He figured if the government could lend a helping hand by allowing indebted farmers a grace period, they could garner enough financial strength to restart their lives.

But that was not the end of it, for he believed an holistic approach would be needed to tackle all the rural problems.

And so arose the Bt1 million village fund, intended as a helping hand for farmers to kick-start themselves again.

The money could be used as working capital for the farmers to develop their own products.

The one-tambol-one-product strategy completed the cycle, as an attempt to help farmers develop tangible ideas about how to market their products.

As a result of Prapat's concept, some 100 products will be pushed out in his programme's first year.

Prapat knew he would be placed at the Agriculture Ministry to oversee the Thai Rak Thai's agricultural reforms.

And although Chucheep Harnsawat became the agriculture minister, Prapat is understood to be the workhorse.

His aim is rather ambitious. Although the Thai Rak Thai programme has got off to a sluggish start, Prapat says that within two years, it will become clear that the lives of rural farmers have been improved.

In a way - as a student, as a farmer, even now as a politician - Prapat has always been walking tall.






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