Uproar over watches threatens Thailand's ruling generals

In this Jan. 11, 2018, photo, Activist Ekachai Hongkangwan show his watches during a demonstration highlighting the corruption allegations against Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan in front of Government House. Prawit has so far been spotted wearing a total of 25 opulent time-pieces, none of which appears on his last declaration of assets. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)
In this Jan. 11, 2018, photo, activist Ekachai Hongkangwan show his watches during a demonstration highlighting the corruption allegations against Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan in front of the Government House. Prawit has so far been spotted wearing a total of 25 opulent time-pieces, none of which appears on his last declaration of assets. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)
In this Dec. 4, 2017, photo, Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan raise his hand to shade the sun wearing a luxury watch and diamond ring during ceremony Government house. Prawit has so far been spotted wearing a total of 25 opulent time-pieces, none of which appears on his last declaration of assets. (AP Photo/Krit Phromsakla Na Sakolnakorn)

BANGKOK — Entering their fifth year in power, Thailand's ruling generals may be running out of time and it's not for a lack of watches.

A growing uproar over the deputy prime minister's mind-boggling array of luxury timepieces is damaging the military government's image so badly that some observers believe it could eventually pave the way for its downfall.

Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan — a career military man who receives only a modest salary — has so far been spotted wearing a total of 25 opulent time pieces, none of which appears on his last declaration of assets. His belated explanation — that he borrowed them from friends — has been met with ridicule.

"Do you really think Thai people would believe your story?" former Sen. Rosana Tositrakul said of Prawit. "You gave such an answer because you don't think the Thai public can do anything to you."

"If you don't take any responsibility," she added, "you'll bring down the whole government."

The timing couldn't be worse for the junta, which seized control of the country in a 2014 coup and is under increasing pressure to finally hold long-delayed elections. The scandal has grown at the same time that junta leader and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha has been testing the political waters, hinting that he plans to stay in power past any possible polls.

So far the band of brothers has closed ranks and the military government has ignored calls to fire or suspend Prawit. But observers say that may be at their own expense because at best it is making their leader look indecisive and at worst fueling accusations of hypocrisy given the junta's self-praise of its anti-corruption efforts.

The saga began on a sunny day last December, with the unveiling of a new, reshuffled Cabinet. Prawit, who is also the minister of defense, took his place for a routine photo opp. But then, routine turned remarkable.

Prawit raised his hand to shield his eyes from the sun and reporters noticed his gleaming watch. A quick records check showed that he had never declared the Richard Mille timepiece on his assets list.

Then it got worse.

Thousands of miles (kilometers) away in Los Angeles, a Thai internet sleuth calling himself CSI-LA scoured the web for previous photos of Prawit. Netizens joined in. And the watch count rocketed: from 1 to 5 to 12. It currently stands at 25. Makes include Rolex and Patek Philippe. The total estimated value: more than $1 million.

"We live in what they call the Big Data World," CSI-LA told the AP last week. "So, these days, everywhere, there is a record of what you do, so if you do something corrupted and you think you can get away, it's not like before."

CSI-LA spoke on condition of anonymity for reasons of personal safety.

For weeks, the general refused to account in public for his glittering hoard. Then when he did, the explanation did nothing to defuse the issue.

"I have friends and they gave them to me," he told reporters. "No, they didn't buy them for me; they just let me wear them. That's all."

When Prawit and his fellow officers toppled the government, they did so, they said, partly to end corruption. Unlike venal, grasping politicians, they said, they were pure.

That claim's rung hollow many times since 2014, with a number of scandals linking the junta or their associates to corruption allegations. But unlike those scandals, which typically grabbed headlines for a few days before being swept away, the watch saga appears to be gaining traction.

It's certainly providing ample fodder for the government's opponents, long held in check by bans on protests and political gatherings.

Activist Ekachai Hongkangwan has risked arrest multiple times over the years to wind the junta up with his stunts. His latest campaign has focused on Prawit, whom he regularly tries to ambush to present him with a cheap Seiko watch.

Ekachai said his message is simple: It's time to go.

"If you can't keep track of the time, there's no point in wearing expensive watches!" Ekachai said at one recent attempt to surprise Prawit, before being dragged away by security.

Rosana, the former senator, said the Thai public is fast losing faith in the men in army green.

"The government said they would fight corruption and that they had promulgated a constitution that was anti-corruption," she said.

"But if their actions show that they are employing a double standard, that they crack down on the opposition but ignore their own people, the general public is not going to accept it."

The matter is now with the National Anti-corruption Commission. But this has only deepened dismay: Its members were appointed by the junta, and its head has a long-standing relationship with Prawit and won't recuse himself.

Worawit Sukboon, a spokesman for the anti-graft body, has called on the media to "wait for all the facts."

Prawit has said he'll resign if the anti-corruption body finds against him. But the damage from this ticking time-bomb of an issue may already have been done.

"It is almost like the last straw," political scientist Thitinan Pongsudhirak said, noting that people have "put up with a lot from the military government."

"I think the watches saga has become the lightning rod, opening the way for the downfall of the military government," he said.

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