The sad saga of Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon and his rich collection of wristwatches has passed into farce. The National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) has used up its last crumb of credibility. The NACC had announced that its third and final deadline for the defence minister to account for the watches would be March 2. But without any explanation, the NACC president amended that. As of now, there is no deadline for Gen Prawit to report.
This unexplained and inexplicable change of attitude by the NACC's top executive is not just a disappointment to the public, it's a political dagger to the heart for the anti-graft body, as well as for Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha. Public opinion was already massively against Gen Prawit and his ostentatious shows of wealth. Now, however, there is NACC conduct that goes far beyond the deferential treatment given to members of this military regime accused of suspicious money activity.
Gen Prawit was first noticed with a hugely expensive watch in early December. Seated for a group photo with the new cabinet, he raised his right arm to shield his eyes. The sun glittered off an impressive diamond estimated at 5 karats. Then his sleeve pulled up, revealing an equally impressive Richard Mille watch, valued at around 1.2 million baht.
Since then, crowd-sourced information curated at the muck-raking CSI-LA Facebook account has documented two dozen other watches of extremely high prestige and value, from many top watchmakers. None of them were reported on his asset declaration list as required by the NACC. As of now, the count has reached 25 different watches. Their retail value listed at various watch dealers is well over US$1 million, or around 35 million baht.
The NACC picked up this clear violation of the unusual-wealth regulations with great reluctance. The supposedly independent commission has not covered itself in glory since the military regime came to power. A notable failure was the refusal to have the prime minister's brother, Gen Preecha, account for unreported money and a mansion he reportedly owns up-country. Handed hundreds of pages of documents on bribery of Thai officials in government and state-owned enterprises by Rolls Royce, the NACC simply refused to advance investigations.
Gen Prawit's case is egregious and without doubt the most important that the NACC has fumbled since the military coup. He is the first deputy prime minister, and steps into the prime minister's chair when Gen Prayut cannot. He is also a longtime military buddy of Gen Prayut's. The prime minister has not had the grace to be embarrassed by his friend's million-dollar jewellery.
On the contrary, he has been adamant that he will never step in, even when Gen Prawit stands accused, not to mention convicted in the court of public opinion, of corruption. When a public opinion survey by Nida Poll showed that 85% of respondents were calling for the deputy prime minister's resignation, the poll went "unpublished" and sent down the memory hole. The government denied it played any role in that censorship.
The biggest problem is the lack of trust in the NACC. The government's anti-corruption push has stalled, and has nowhere to go without the NACC. The commission's president, Watcharapol Prasarnrajkit, personally brushed aside the March 2 reporting deadline last week without explanation. As has been widely reported, he is a former aide to Gen Prawit and his brother, the former national police chief, Pol Gen Patcharawat.
There now is just one way out of this scandal for Prime Minister Prayut.
He must appoint an outsider with impeccably honest credentials to start over with Gen Prawit's watches. Only a quick, public accounting will now satisfy the public on this matter.