BANGKOK - Growing demands for the resignation of Thailand's deputy premier Prawit Wongsuwan have threatened to erode the ruling junta's clout as it tries to tame discontent over a delay in election.
General Prawit, who is also defence minister, has been under fire since December last year when he was spotted wearing a flashy watch and a diamond ring which were not declared among his assets, as required of office holders. The list of declared assets is made public in Thailand.
An Internet sleuth, zooming in on publicly available pictures of the minister, identified a total of 25 undeclared luxury watches worth over US$1 million (S$1.32 million).
Gen Prawit, who claimed the watches were loaned from friends and have since been returned, said he would resign if found guilty in an ongoing probe by the National Anti-Corruption Commission.
"I want to work for my country. If the people don't want me to, I am ready to leave my position," he said last Wednesday (Jan 31).
National broadcaster Thai PBS ran a 24-hour online poll. Of the 192,500 respondents, 96 per cent wanted him to quit.
A two-month-old petition on change.org website to get Gen Prawit to quit has garnered some 75,000 votes as of Thursday morning.
On Tuesday, a lone protester in Bangkok's business district held a sign demanding that Gen Prawit resign as he was surrounded by security officers.
Some, however, are seeking support for him to stay on. A petition on change.org was started last week by a user named "Invisible Hands," who wanted him to remain in his positions "for the security of the country and the 2018 World Cup".
While the petition quickly received over 10,000 signatures, many of the names and e-mails used belonged to activists who had been critical of the junta. Change.org, after investigating, removed those that it deemed to be fake. The petition now has just about 500 signatures as of Thursday.
The watch controversy has been caricatured by artists and university students and is a source of viral memes on social media.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has called the watch affair Gen Prawit's "personal matter".
But critics have accused the military government of trying to protect Gen Prawit, who was one of the key leaders behind the 2014 coup and also oversees the powerful security portfolio in the Cabinet.
Academic Arnond Sakworawich, who used to head the polling unit of the National Institute of Development Administration (Nida), quit in a huff recently, declaring in his Facebook post that he would not lick the government's boots. Nida's president Pradit Wanarat later revealed that the dispute had centred on a poll of people's opinions of the watch affair, but said the survey did not meet academic standards.
Chulalongkorn University political scientist Pitch Pongsawat said Gen Prawit's watch affair has taken on a larger meaning - as a symbol of institutional corruption. "It's about the whole system that cannot deal with him," he told The Straits Times.
After nearly four years, the junta maintains absolute power, and has yet to lift a ban on political gatherings. The recent amendment of a law allows the future election to be delayed till 2019, even though the prime minister had earlier cited November this year.
A survey by Suan Dusit University of 1,217 respondents this month found some 85 per cent keenly following news on the election delay, wanting to know the reasons for it and the new election date.
Activists demanding elections plan to hold another rally at Bangkok's Democracy Monument on Saturday.
Gen Prawit, asked by reporters on Wednesday about the pressure he was facing, replied: "What pressure? No pressure. That's just your own thinking."