BANGKOK (THE NATION/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - The National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) has to prove its neutrality and its professionalism as it sifts the facts behind Prawit Wongsuwan's disturbing possession of luxury trinkets far beyond the reach of his dual salary as deputy prime minister and defence minister.
Mishandling this matter would not just undermine its own credibility - it would render farcical the ruling junta's stated mission of ending corruption in the name of national reform.
The posh glint of Prawit's wristwatch and diamond ring couldn't fail to catch the public's eye in photos of the newly reshuffled Cabinet last week.
It was readily acknowledged that he has every right to flaunt his wealth, as rich people are wont to do. The problem is that Prawit failed to mention these luxury goods in the declaration of assets required of all political officeholders.
If he obtained them after taking office, and since he cannot afford them on his salary or based on his declared level of wealth, his possession of them implies that something untoward has occurred.
It places the junta's "Brother No 2" in a tricky position, because he gained his lofty position on the back of a military coup aimed at ending widespread corruption in politics.
If the public is suspicious of Prawit, it is also dubious about the NACC's readiness to dig into the affair.
All of its members owe their postings to the junta, and its director, Police General Watcharapol Prasarnrajkit, previously worked on General Prawit's staff.
Shortly after the coup in May 2014, he rose from deputy police chief to acting police chief, then was named to the National Legislative Assembly, and then was deputy secretary general to the prime minister under Prawit's purview.
After he became head of the NACC, it cleared several other junta officials of alleged corruption regarding the construction of the Army's costly Rajabhakti Park.
Amid calls for him to step aside while Prawit's luxury items are scrutinised, Watcharapol has said only that the commission had given Prawit 30 days to explain where the assets came from.
He also expressed confidence that Prawit would be able to prove his innocence.
Evidently Watchapol sees no conflict of interest in his continued involvement as the agency quizzes a man with whom he enjoys such a close relationship. This in itself is appalling. Watcharapol should stand down, if only temporarily, or risk the investigation being condemned as a whitewash.
Adding fuel to the controversy is Prawit supporters hinting at possible loopholes by which he could escape scrutiny. It's been noted, for example, that political officeholders and high-ranking officials are legally required to report their assets before assuming their posts and upon leaving them - but not while they're in office.
On being named to the Cabinet in 2014, Prawit reportedly declared no individual asset worth more than Bt200,000 (S$8,000). It's been helpfully suggested in the news media that he simply say the watch is on loan from a wealthy friend and the ring was a family heirloom actually owned by a sibling. But Prawit has already admitted owning both for a long time. He just hasn't said why he didn't declare them.
The NACC has a duty to find out what's going on here. It won't be difficult tracking down the origins of such expensive accoutrements.
The Richard Mille watch can be traced through its distributor - unless of course it's fake. And then we have a whole different story on our wrists.
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