Thai DPM sits tight as watch scandal ticks on

Thailand's Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan sporting what looked like a diamond ring and a Richard Mille watch costing over $100,000 in a photo taken last December.
Thailand's Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan sporting what looked like a diamond ring and a Richard Mille watch costing over $100,000 in a photo taken last December.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

General says luxury timepieces he's been seen wearing not his

A group photo outside Government House last year set off a chain of events that has now turned Thailand's Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan into one of the biggest liabilities of the ruling junta.

Lined up for a picture with the new Cabinet, General Prawit, who has been Defence Minister since the 2014 coup, held up his arm to shield his face from the December sun, exposing what looked like a diamond ring on his finger and a Richard Mille watch costing over $100,000 on his wrist.

It did not look like something that Gen Prawit, 72, could afford on what he had earned throughout his career as an army officer, a military commander and a defence chief. An anonymous Internet sleuth began scrutinising all the timepieces he had been seen wearing publicly, and eventually uncovered a list of 25 luxury watches worth over US$1 million (S$1.3 million). None had been publicly declared by the deputy premier as his assets, as required of office holders.

His explanation - that he had borrowed the watches from friends and had since returned them all - has been panned by critics. Mr Pridiyathorn Devakula, who served alongside him as deputy prime minister in 2014, has openly advised Gen Prawit to quit. "Live a happy life, live well, and protect your reputation, which is still good," Mr Pridiyathorn said on TV.

But the general is sitting tight.

Gen Prawit's nickname is "Big Pom". Pom means round, or fort.

He is a "big brother" of the Burapha Payak or Eastern Tigers military clique, whose members include Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, Interior Minister Anupong Paochinda, and several senior military and government officers.

Born into a family led by a military officer, Gen Prawit attended the private all-boys Saint Gabriel's College in Bangkok, before going to the Armed Forces Academies Preparatory School and Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy.

He rose to head the army in 2004, and was defence minister from 2008 to 2011 in the government headed by Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva. Gen Prawit reprised that role after the 2014 coup staged by then army chief, Gen Prayut, whom he is said to have mentored.

The Deputy Premier, who is known to have extensive networks in the military as well as the police force, oversees national security in the Cabinet. One of his four younger brothers is Patcharawat Wongsuwan, a former police chief.

The luxury watch scandal is not the first time Gen Prawit has become embroiled in a controversy.

In 2016, he travelled with an entourage on a chartered flight to Hawaii to attend an informal defence ministers' meeting at the invitation of US defence secretary Ashton Carter. The total cost of airfare and in-flight food and drinks was 20.9 million baht (S$833,000). The auditor-general then cleared the trip of any irregularity.

This time, the public scrutiny has been intense, not least because the ruling generals are busy defending themselves against claims that they are delaying an election to favour a proxy party. There are questions over whether any probe on Gen Prawit can be impartial because the chairman of the National Anti-Corruption Commission looking into the issue is his former subordinate.

Piqued by the media attention, two weeks ago, Gen Prawit declared: "Let the NACC look into the matter. If I am found to have done anything wrong, I will resign."

Last Wednesday, an NACC official said the Deputy Premier need not declare assets that did not belong to him. Prime Minister Prayut, apparently ignoring the calls to sack Gen Prawit , labelled the watch affair "a personal matter".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 29, 2018, with the headline 'Thai DPM sits tight as watch scandal ticks on'. Print Edition | Subscribe