BANGKOK — Entering their fifth year in power, Thailand’s ruling generals may be running out of time and it’s not for a lack of watches.
A growing uproar over the deputy prime minister’s mind-boggling array of luxury timepieces is damaging the military government’s image so badly that some observers believe it could eventually pave the way for its downfall.
Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan — a career military man who receives a modest salary — has so far been spotted wearing a total of 25 opulent time pieces, none of which appears on his last declaration of assets. His belated explanation — that he borrowed them from friends — has been met with ridicule.
“Do you really think Thai people would believe your story?” former Sen. Rosana Tositrakul said of Prawit. “You gave such an answer because you don’t think the Thai public can do anything to you.”
“If you don’t take any responsibility,” she added, “you’ll bring down the whole government.”
The timing couldn’t be worse for the junta, which seized control of the country in a 2014 coup and is under increasing pressure to finally hold long-delayed elections. The scandal has grown at the same time that junta leader and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha has been testing the political waters, hinting that he plans to stay in power past any possible polls.
So far the band of brothers has closed ranks and the military government has ignored calls to fire or suspend Prawit. But observers say at best it is making their leader look indecisive and at worst fueling accusations of hypocrisy given the junta’s self-praise of its anti-corruption efforts.
The saga began on a sunny day last December, with the unveiling of a new, reshuffled Cabinet. Prawit, who is also the minister of defense, took his place for a routine photo opp. But then, routine turned remarkable.
Prawit raised his hand to shield his eyes from the sun and reporters noticed his gleaming watch. A quick records check showed that he had never declared the Richard Mille timepiece on his assets list.
Thousands of miles away in Los Angeles, a Thai internet sleuth calling himself CSI-LA scoured the web for previous photos of Prawit. Netizens joined in. And the watch count rocketed to 25. The total estimated value: more than $1 million.