Thailand's junta number two Prawit Wongsuwan covers his eyes, displaying a watch he is wearing, during a photo call with other members of a new cabinet in Bangkok.
Photo: AFP/ Krit Phromsakla Na Sakolnakorn
Thailand's junta number two Prawit Wongsuwan covers his eyes, displaying a watch he is wearing, during a photo call with other members of a new cabinet in Bangkok. Photo: AFP/ Krit Phromsakla Na Sakolnakorn

Government officials caught in possession of luxury items their modest income shouldn’t afford is old news, especially in developing nations. What follows – how the system addresses the allegations and how the accused responds – can shed much light on the country’s power structure. Through this lens, Thailand’s ruling military men have made it crystal clear that their reign is far from over.

General Prawit Wongsuwan’s acquittal on corruption charges, announced on December 27 by Thailand’s National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC), capped a drawn-out, year-long investigation that put an uncomfortable focus on a pillar of the military regime. Despite the buildup of anticipation, the result was all but guaranteed given that the commission had always been influenced by political pressure.

The charges stemmed from a photo session for a new cabinet unveiled in December 2017 – besides serving as the junta’s No 2, Prawit also held the posts of deputy prime minister and minister of defense – where he was photographed wearing a gleaming high-end watch on his wrist.

It was a curious moment: He was shielding his eyes from the sun with his hand but the gesture came off as if deliberate – a perfect ploy for the smiling general to show off his bling. So prominent was the wristwatch that it took no time before someone identified the make, model, and price tag (Richard Mille RM29, worth US$100,000). Subsequent scrutiny by the public of his photos over the years unearthed more than 20 luxury timepieces, including Rolexes, totaling upwards of $1 million in value.

An elected politician seen displaying this much wealth would have immediately recognized a bevy of problems the scandal could cause. With a potential prison sentence hanging over his head, he would have done the least thing anybody with common sense would do: come up with a convincing excuse.

General Prawit proved to be no natural politician – or a person with common sense, for that matter. He blustered about not remembering when or how he got those watches. Only after realizing he had made the matter worse did he finally come up with something of an explanation: “I borrowed them from a friend.”

It turned out the friend had died a year before. The general continued to wear these watches after the friend’s demise – even wore one to the guy’s funeral – until the fuss made them unwearable. In the event, the NACC considered warranty receipts in the friend’s name enough ground to suspect Prawit of innocence, concluding the watches must have belonged to the friend and clearing the general of any wrongdoing.

Put another way, the anti-graft agency itself in essence said that bribery is OK when it arrives in the form of a loan.

That such a lame excuse could pass muster demonstrates the length to which the junta’s chief and the country’s prime minister, Prayut Chan-ocha, would go to defend his brother-in-arms. Their relationship went back to the early days when they served together in the same army unit in eastern part of Thailand. Prawit was the senior and it was he who helped Prayut and other future junta leaders rise through the ranks during a decades-long career. In so doing, he not only cemented their fraternal bonds but also his own stature as their revered elder.

The junta’s collective personal foibles – quick tempers, expensive tastes, and distinct lacks of charisma – have done nothing to endear the ruling generals to the Thai public, let alone salvage the Prawit situation.

Their nasty habit of exploding into angry outbursts when cornered by tough questions from news reporters has been such a common occurrence that Thais have become inured. Having to watch scowling old men on TV for four years actually makes one appreciate slick politicians who can deftly pivot and keep on smiling under pressure.

The junta’s ongoing prosecution of people close to former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra on corruption charges has shown that its pledge to clean up corruption was good, as long as that meant wiping out opposition and not targeting their own ranks.

With an election scheduled for February fast approaching – though it has been postponed so many times that another delay wouldn’t be surprising – the regime has rewritten the constitution to allow its appointed senators to nominate and vote on the selection of a prime minister, in case its proxy parties can’t win a majority.

The prospect of a prolonged military rule sounds both depressing and inevitable.

Chavalit Likitvivatanavong lives in Bangkok. He holds a doctorate in computer science from University College Cork, Ireland.