Thai anti-graft agency says DPM Prawit must prove luxury watches were borrowed

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said the public should not mix up General Prawit Wongsuwan's private matters with his work, adding that General Prawit's personal belongings had nothing to do with the national budget. PHOTO: AFP

BANGKOK (AFP) - The Thai junta's number two, who is mired in a graft scandal over his dazzling collection of luxury watches, could be cleared of wrongdoing if he proves the timepieces were borrowed from friends, an anti-graft agency said on Wednesday (Jan 24).

Prawit Wongsuwan's penchant for pricey watches has captivated Thailand's public since Facebook users began counting the expensive accessories worn by the deputy prime minister, even prompting calls for him to resign in a country where such open criticism is unusual.

Since December the "CSI LA" Facebook page has counted 25 watches collectively worth US$1.2 million (S$1.6 million), including 11 Rolexes, eight Patek Philippes and three Richard Milles.

The affair has stirred questions over how an ex-general on a relatively humble public servant's salary could afford items undeclared on his US$2.7 million list of assets on taking office.

The unrelenting social media campaign has heaped pressure on Prawit to resign as well as on the kingdom's anti-graft agency to open a full, transparent probe into the bling.

Prawit, an architect of Thailand's 2014 coup who is also defence minister, says the watches were borrowed from friends and later returned.

Thailand's National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) is yet to open an official graft probe, but is questioning the people Prawit has listed as the watch owners.

"If the watches belong to others and not him, he doesn't have to declare them under the law," NACC deputy secretary-general Worawit Sukboon told reporters.

"If the watches are his, we have to find out when he got them, is it before he took up his post (as deputy prime minister) or after?"

The affair of the general and his watches, has stirred an unusual level of public outcry in a country where criticism of the junta has been muted and the rich and powerful are rarely held to account.

Junta leader Prayut Chan-o-cha, a longtime army ally of Prawit, on Tuesday denied his deputy could be prodded into resigning.

In 2014, Prayut declared his assets to the NACC at around US$4 million in savings, investments and property.

Analysts say the slew of bad headlines is corrosive on Prayut's government - which seized power wielding its anti-corruption credentials - and own political ambitions as the country looks towards the return of elections.

The Thai-born US-based data analyst, whose crowd-sourced sleuthing as "CSI LA" unearthed the watches from official photos and news reports, vowed to redouble his campaign.

"I will not stop on the issue - I will go all the way. I don't want to be like other media where this kind of scandals come and go," he told AFP on Wednesday, requesting to be called 'David'.

"I call this culture Amazing Thailand! In any other country the leaders would resign by now."

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