Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwon's explanation for his collection of 25 luxury watches on Tuesday has failed to appease a questioning public but the onus is now on Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to take action and ensure the issue is dealt with transparently, critics say.
Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva, a former prime minister, said the burgeoning scandal could undermine confidence in the regime. "If the premier still wants to use the word good governance, he should take action and set a political standard," he said. "At the very least clarification should be provided for the public.
"I am trying to point out as a politician that this government has blamed old generations of politicians for many things. I would also like to point to the ethical standards of my [former] government," he said.
"I made sure to clear up any issues the public saw as being suspicious. Two of my ministers even resigned on a matter of concern despite the National Anti-Corruption Commission [NACC] finding them not guilty."
Gen Prawit has taken flak for owning a large collection of luxury watches and not declaring them among his assets, sparking concern about how he was able to afford them on his military salary.
He told reporters at Government House on Tuesday that he borrowed the timepieces from friends and only wore them sporadically, insisting he was not a collector. All the watches have since been returned to their owners, he claimed. He refused to disclose how many watches he owns and said he was ready to resign if the NACC concludes he has committed any wrongdoing.
Gen Prawit has been spotted wearing at least 25 watches, according to CSI LA, a Thai-language Facebook page that has been encouraging online sleuths to submit photos or other documents detailing the expensive trinkets sported by the regime's No.2 man. It has published the watch photos online.
The latest watch, revealed on its Facebook page Wednesday, was a Patek Philippe Complications Annual Calendar, which the group said is worth over 1.5 million baht (US$47,000). According to the CSI LA information, the combined value of the 25 watches is as much as 39.5 million baht. They include 11 Rolexes, eight Patek Philippes, three Richard Milles, two Audemars Pigues and one A. Lange & Sohne.
The Democrat leader said Gen Prayut should not regard the issue as "discourse" but see it was a matter of behaviour. The saga also had sown public doubt in the NACC, with Thais wanting to know how many watches Gen Prawit had borrowed from his friends and who they are, he said.
He said that with some people planning to ask the Constitutional Court to rule on the status of the incumbent NACC commissioners, as well as the perceived relationship between some commissioners and the government, the NACC will find it harder to investigate in Gen Prawit's case.
Former Democrat MP Charnchai Issarasenarak said Gen Prayut must choose between his "brother" and the country. "If you want peace and unity, you need to make it clear what is right and what is wrong, not choose cronyism.
Pheu Thai Party's former minister Watana Muangsook said it would be strange if his friends all wore the same size watch which just happens to fit Gen Prawit's wrist. Meanwhile, Gen Prayut, who had appointed himself to chair a national anti-graft committee could not clarify the issue to the public either, Mr Watana said.
Former senator Rosana Tositrakul proposed this month the NACC to ask Gen Prawit to hand over all the luxury watches and ask the Customs Department to check from the serial numbers whether all the required excise taxes were paid legally.
NACC secretary-general Worawit Sukboon declined to comment on Gen Prawit's remark that the watches he wore belonged to his friends, saying the NACC is doing its work. Mr Worawit said earlier the case was not complicated and the NACC should wrap up its probe by the end of this month or shortly thereafter.
Gen Prawit has for weeks been embroiled in a scandal over how he obtained so many expensive timepieces, and other jewellery, and why he failed to include them in his declared assets.
Gen Prawit has taken flak since pictures started circulating online of him wearing various luxury watches at public functions. None were included in the declared assets he submitted to the NACC when he took office in 2014. Besides Gen Prawit and the prime minister, the spotlight has also shone on NACC president Watcharapol Prasarnrajkit, a former subordinate of Gen Prawit's. Critics contend this renders the investigation a sham due to the power of such connections in the country's politics.
Pol Gen Watcharapol has dismissed such worries and guaranteed a "clean" investigation would he conducted. He added that in any case it was beyond his power to influence the decisions made by the other eight NACC members.