From what started as the unveiling of an undeclared Richard Mille, the luxury wristwatch scandal embroiling Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon has turned into a saga of a seemingly endless list of undeclared timepieces.
As of press time yesterday, the CSI LA Facebook page had just posted a picture of him wearing his 24th undeclared watch — a Rolex Cosmograph Daytona worth about one million baht.
With 24 watches exposed in less than two months, many believe there could be more to follow from the social media page and all are unlikely to have been included in Gen Prawit’s asset declarations to the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC), as required by law.
Soonruth Bunyamanee is deputy editor, Bangkok Post.
If this kind of scandal happened to any member of an elected government, that person would have already been grilled fiercely in parliament and, I believe, such a person would definitely have been ousted.
But, under the current military regime, Gen Prawit hasn’t faced such pressure and continues to serve as deputy premier and defence minister. The regime’s inaction toward this scandal seems to be in direct opposition to the reasons it gave for its military coup in 2014 — to push for political reform and to promote morality, ethics and good governance in Thai politics.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has always told the public not to compromise with corruption and urged Thais not to vote “bad people” into power.
For several groups of people who welcomed the coup, they believed it could offer a means to bring about positive changes. As a result, they expect the coup-installed government to have standards of morality, ethics and governance higher than those of previous elected governments. But the military government has so far failed them in terms of its inaction towards the luxury watch scandal.
Gen Prawit himself insisted he has never been corrupt. He also said he didn’t have to explain the issue to the media. That means he thinks it is unnecessary to explain this scandal to the public.
True, there hasn’t been any evidence uncovered so far to prove that he has been involved in corruption. However, after the string of exposures of his 24 seemingly undeclared luxury watches, with a combined value of almost 40 million baht, hasn’t the scandal become controversial enough for him to show his political spirit and step down?
Gen Prawit said yesterday he would step down only if the NACC ruled that he is guilty. For now, he has shamefully refused to quit while the anti-graft agency’s investigation is ongoing, saying “no one” should interfere in the case.
Earlier, the deputy prime minister submitted his written explanation to the NACC to clarify the first 15 luxury watches which were spotted on his wrist. The anti-graft agency revealed that it would question four individuals whom Gen Prawit mentioned in his account.
For the first time, Gen Prawit himself yesterday said all of the watches in question belong to friends who lent them to him and they have since been returned.
But, as the number of undeclared watches jumps to 24 and looks likely to grow further, I wonder how many more friends Gen Prawit will have to refer to as owners of the timepieces? And what kind of person would borrow so many luxury watches from friends?
The NACC, led by its president Pol Gen Watcharapol Prasarnrajkit, a former subordinate of Gen Prawit, would have to be very naive to believe that all of the luxury watches (and possibly more to come) were lent to Gen Prawit by his friends and then clear him of the allegation of unusual wealth or asset concealment. The public would definitely not buy it.
Prime Minister Prayut has played down the scandal even though it has the potential to undermine his credibility and jeopardise his chances of becoming a non-elected premier after the next general election, tentatively set for November.
Although Gen Prayut has never publicly admitted he has such political ambitions, there have been signs that he’s probably aiming for that goal. Just after the New Year holidays, Gen Prayut said publicly for the first time that he is no longer a soldier but a politician who used to be a soldier.
Then, Gen Prawit, who is the “big brother” of the military regime, came out to endorse Gen Prayut as a potential non-elected prime minister after the election.
Most recently, Gen Prayut insisted that Thailand should be governed under a Thai-style democracy. Without elaborating, he left the public to assume that Thai-style democracy is one in which a prime minister can be a non-elected person and an administration can function under the military’s shadow.
But the watch scandal involving Gen Prawit is risky if Gen Prayut wishes to pursue political goals. He stands to lose support from those who once backed him in taking power. Privy Council president Gen Prem Tinsulanonda previously said Gen Prayut had nearly run out of support and suggested the prime minister needed to do things to restore trust to prove that he is working in the interests of the country and the public.
The watch scandal makes matters worse, and Gen Prayut risks losing more support due to his inaction on the issue.
Over the past three years, Gen Prayut has repeatedly exercised his special power under Section 44 of the interim charter to suspend many state officials from work after investigations began into allegations of their involvement in corruption or irregularities. But, in the case of Gen Prawit, the prime minister has left the NACC to do the job.
Isn’t this a double standard? Why does this member of his government enjoy immunity from Section 44 when state officials don’t?
Gen Prawit’s scandal is undermining public confidence in Gen Prayut. The prime minister’s inaction towards the case is seen as cronyism, not to mention several other corruption allegations involving members of his regime.
I think the PM is duty-bound to suspend Gen Prawit while the NACC probe remains ongoing. Gen Prayut should treat his “big brother” in the same way he does state officials if he wants to be a successful politician.
I personally believe Gen Prawit will eventually be ousted due to public pressure. But Gen Prayut will be judged on his suitability for the non-elected premier job by how he handles this scandal.