Scandal needs closer watch

Scandal needs closer watch

It has been a year since Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon showed off his diamonds and a costly watch too ostentatiously to miss. It occurred at Government House as ministers gathered for a portrait-photoshoot of the "Prayut 5" cabinet. Gen Prawit raised his hand to shield his eyes from the sun, his cuff shot up, and Bangkok Post photographer Chanat Katanyu framed and caught the display of costly bling in a now-classic photo.

The public reaction was immediate and measured, but demanding answers. Gen Prawit was wearing a Richard Mille, model RM 029, timepiece, with a minimum value of 2.5 million baht. Gen Prawit's declared annual income, in a mandatory statement to the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC), was one third of that amount. His declared assets totalled more than 87 million baht (up 30 million in three years), mostly in cash and property.

Gen Prawit's public asset declarations included no watches or jewellery and the public and media wanted to know what was going on. From that point, things got worse.

Gen Prawit clammed up. His silence and total refusal to explain or even address the luxury-watch issue was noted by the secretary-general of the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC), Worawit Sukboon. Three days after the photograph hit the front page, Mr Worawit put the watch on the NACC table for immediate investigation. "Gen Prawit's senior role puts no pressure on us," he insisted. Famous last words.

Within five days, eager online eyes found that Ministry of Defence and media photographs showed that Gen Prawit's watch collection included at least 11 luxury timepieces, with a minimum value of 17,664,000 baht. Two more weeks of combing photo archives showed the former army commander and close personal friend of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha had at least 25 watches worth almost 40 million baht. The million-dollar horde included many familiar luxury brands: Richard Mille, Rolex, Patek Philippe, Piguet and more.

In the first half of February, Gen Prawit told the NACC he was very busy. He was sorry he could not meet the commission's Feb 15 deadline to explain the original watch. The NACC extended the reporting deadline to March 2. Gen Prawit's aides began whispering to the media that their boss was completely innocent of any real or even accidental corruption. He had borrowed the Richard Mille watch from a friend who, unfortunately, had recently passed away.

The dead friend then became Gen Prawit's go-to explanation. On March 29, Mr Worawit told the media that Gen Prawit had submitted an explanatory letter. "All the watches belonged to one dead friend," said the graft investigator.

The watch scandal has continued until today. Every couple of months, Mr Worawit issues a statement that the probe will be wrapped up "soon". Social media users have quickly grown cynical and openly deride the NACC for alleged incompetence.

Of course, that may not be the real reason for the cover-up of the scandal. The most telling incident may have come in early February, from a fellow cabinet minister. Education Minister Teerakiat Jareonsettasin, during a trip to London and a short interview with the BBC's Thai office, said that if he were caught in a similar scandal, he would resign. Very quickly, the media learned from "reliable sources" that Mr Teerakiat owned 5,000 shares of Siam Cement stock and might be investigated and fired.

Gen Prawit is the highest-ranking regime member caught in corruption suspicion. But other friends of Gen Prayut, including his brother Gen Preecha, also have been excused from the rule of law. It is inexcusable that the NACC refuses timely investigation and release of information to the public. It is far worse when the government allows such conduct.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

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