Twenty-five wristwatches valued at an estimated US$1.24 million have become painful tourniquets on the arm of Thailand’s coup-installed defense minister.
The luxury timepieces are also threatening to derail Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s chances of remaining in power after elections tentatively scheduled for late 2018 or 2019.
For the past six weeks Defense Minister General Prawit Wongsuwon, who is also deputy prime minister, has been targeted by media photographs purportedly documenting the dates and venues when he has worn 25 different expensive watches in public.
“I have friends, and my friends lent me those watches. They did not buy them for me,” a visibly irritated Prawit told reporters on January 16.
That explanation drew immediate demands by activists and others for a public naming of the people who lent watches to Prawit, plus serial numbers and receipts proving the purchases.
The escalating scandal over possible corruption is now impacting upon the upcoming election to change the military regime into a civilian-led government.
“Prime Minister Prayuth has played down the scandal even though it has the potential to undermine his credibility and jeopardize his chances of becoming a non-elected premier after the next general election,” wrote the Bangkok Post’s Soonruth Bunyamanee.
Public complaints about the scandal has led the junta-appointed head of the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) to open an investigation.
“I have never committed malfeasance. No way,” Prawit said on December 6 before meeting the NACC. His explanation to the anti-graft body was not publicly revealed.
The commission’s findings are expected to be announced by the end of the month.”If found guilty, I will resign,” he told reporters on January 16.
Serious allegations of corruption among the junta could make the regime reluctant to hand over power if they are worried about prosecution.
“There are fears among regime members that dirt under their rug may be exposed once their power is stripped away,” Thai columnist Wasant Techawongtham wrote on January 6.
That could prompt the US-trained military to again delay the polls, which it has done each year since toppling a civilian government in a mid-2014 coup.
Elections are expected to be held only when the military is confident it will remain in control with military officers and supporters in a partially-appointed Parliament and a pro-military future prime minister.
When he was army chief, Prayuth led the 2014 coup and then retired as a general to become prime minster. He said this month that he is now a politician rather than soldier.
His military government rewrote the constitution in a way that allows Parliament, including a 250-member appointed Senate, to choose an “outsider” if they cannot agree to select a member. Each party is required to nominate three potential prime ministerial candidates.
“I am convinced that Prayuth will become prime minister [again] after election,” Titipol Phakdeewanich, political science faculty dean at Ubon Ratchathani University, said in an interview.
“With or without elections, the military is likely to continue to play a central in Thai politics, at least for the next decade,” Titipol said.
“They [the junta] have been wholly unable to imagine giving up any real power,” David Streckfuss, an independent academic in northeast Thailand, said in an interview.
“In the minds of the military and the conservative and desperate Bangkok elite, they must still see the political situation as threatening, given their fear of having a free and fair election even under the undemocratic constitution they have imposed,” Streckfuss said.
The new constitution was passed in a national referendum in August 2016 under heavy military restrictions on campaigning against the charter.
Pro-democracy activists and local media have come to realize the 25 wristwatches provide a way to criticize the military government without risking detention in dreaded “attitude adjustment” re-education camps which have silenced most public political dissent.
Defense Minister Prawit unknowingly created his own suffering when he lifted his right arm and shaded his grinning face during a sun-drenched ceremony at Bangkok’s Government House on December 4.
His immaculate white uniform’s sleeve retracted and exposed an expensive watch on his wrist above a big diamond ring.
Internet-savvy Thais on Facebook and other social media — where they frequently attack the government with some anonymity — claimed the wristwatch was a Richard Mille model worth more than $75,000.
A popular activist Facebook group called CSI LA 90210 quickly flooded its site with previous photos of at least 25 timepieces on Prawit’s wrist, seen while he attended political meetings, lit Buddhist candles, tested weapons, congratulated newlyweds, signed documents, prayed at a temple, announced edicts, or gesticulated at news conferences.
CSI LA 90210 estimated the unconfirmed value of the 25 watches total US$1.24 million. They appeared to include watches by Rolex, Patek Philippe, Richard Mille and other brands. Thais also debated online the carat weight and value of his diamond ring.
Government leaders, when starting their jobs, are required to declare their personal assets and list expensive items such as jewelry, cars, real estate and investments. Prawit’s previous asset declarations reportedly did not mention so many wristwatches or the ring.
“Why do you see [the wristwatches] on social media and question me?” an exasperated Prime Minister Prayuth responded to journalists on January 8. As Prawit’s former junior in the military’s hierarchy, Prayuth remains a strong ally of Prawit who in turn bolsters his junta.
“The Prawit wristwatch case has been handed to junta opponents as if on a silver platter,” Paul Chambers, a Naresuan University lecturer who specializes in Thailand’s military, said in an interview. “They are using it to extend more indirect attacks on the junta itself.
“It weakens the legitimacy of the 2014 coup which was necessary, according to [military] leaders, to stop the corruption of civilian leaders. It might add doubt among Thais to the authenticity of any future military-backed political party,” Chambers said.
“Opponents of the current military government are targeting Prawit and his watches as a point of vulnerability and apparent hypocrisy in terms of corruption, but given Prawit’s utter flouting of the matter, it is most unlikely to have any significant effect,” Benjamin Zawacki, author of a new book on Thailand’s foreign relations, said in an interview.
“Prawit has obviously done something that is not above board, and the public and the media are right in pointing it out,” Tom Kruesopon, a former political advisor to the previous coup-toppled government said in an interview.
“It’s a personal embarrassment to Deputy Prime Minister Prawit and certainly to his political partner Prime Minister Prayuth,” Kruesopon said.