Champagne corks pop in Prawit home

Champagne corks pop in Prawit home

Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwon never has been shy about flashing his bling in public. (Bangkok Post file photo)
Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwon never has been shy about flashing his bling in public. (Bangkok Post file photo)

Having declared over 87 million baht in assets to the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) there is no doubt that Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon, who has spent his entire career as a professional soldier, is a rich man.

In fact, his wealth makes us question whether the old Thai saying mia tahan nub kuad, mia tamruad nub bank is now outdated. It translates as follows: Soldiers’ wives only have empty bottles of booze to count, yet police officers’ wives count stacks of banknotes.

The saying is a satirical comparison of different financial conditions enjoyed by soldiers and the police, both of which are state authorities with modest incomes. It suggests the “men in khaki” (cops) are in a position to enjoy discreet kickbacks.

Paritta Wangkiat is a reporter, Bangkok Post.

Some soldiers - Gen Prawit, for example - clearly differ from the majority of their brothers-in-arms, who can barely make ends meet most of the time.

Of his 87 million baht, Gen Prawit has 53 million baht in savings, 7 million baht in investments, 17 million baht in land and 10 million baht in property. The total value of his assets reportedly rose from 79 million baht in 2012 to 87 million baht in 2014.

The wealth he declared to the NACC, like that of some other former army men in the Prayut cabinet in 2014, raised eyebrows back then.

The deputy premier’s current salary currently stands at about 115,000 baht while the highest salary of a four-star general in the Thai army is 76,000 baht. Gen Prawit retired from the Defence Ministry in 2005 as army chief.

Yet much has been made on social media and elsewhere of photographs of him wearing an expensive Richard Mille watch and a sparkling diamond ring last Monday while waiting for a group photo at Government House.

Some critics rightly pointed out the two luxury items (the watch retails for 12 million baht, or US$370,000) did not appear on his 2014 asset declaration list. That information has created a buzz on social media.

When confronted by the media later in the week, he managed to stay calm but dodged all of the key questions, merely saying he would explain to the NACC how he obtained the items without committing any wrongdoing.

Gen Prawit also quipped that the attempts by his enthusiastic critics to nail him down were not “fact-finding” but “false-finding”.

However I also disagree with the critics. Given his vast wealth, the deputy premier can afford dozens of Richard Mille and other designer watches and jewellery.

This is not the first time political office holders have faced questions about their “undeclared” assets.

Back in 2013, then-prime minister Yingluck Shiwatra was questioned by the her rival and Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva during a no-confidence debate about a 2.5-million-baht watch omitted from her assets declared to the NACC.

Ms Yingluck had declared just nine watches with a combined price of 1.8 million baht, which she said she obtained before taking office in 2011.

Like Gen Prawit, Ms Yingluck was probed by the NACC. A key difference between these two public figures is that one comes from a wealthy clan, well-known for its vast business empire, while the other is a retired military officer. Gen Prawit has never revealed whether he owns or runs any businesses.

I welcome the NACC’s move in Gen Prawit’s case but I don’t have high expectations. And there is definitely no hope for the coup-installed National Legislative Assembly (NLA) to help out as it cannot play a role in maintaining the system of checks and balances.

Look at the previous attempts of those fighting graft in handling scandals involving people within the NCPO circle. The public would hardly be impressed with the results.

The anti-graft body did not pay attention when Gen Prawit and 38 delegates took their infamous Hawaii trip to a US security conference in 2016.

This caught the public’s attention as it involved 20.9 million baht spent on chartered flights and a 600,000-baht food bill.

Leaked photos showed that caviar was served on the plane but Gen Prawit insisted his team only ate ordinary food. The Office of the Auditor-General found no irregularities.

The NACC also seems to be making little progress in another case involving Gen Prawit’s younger brother, Pol Gen Patcharawat, who also stands accused of concealing his wealth.

Suddenly that Thai proverb comes to mind. Except the bottles in Gen Prawit’s residence must be Chateau Mouton-Rothschild.

Paritta Wangkiat

Columnist

Paritta Wangkiat is a Bangkok Post columnist.

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