Time Has Come Today for Thailand's Military Junta
BANGKOK, Thailand -- Thailand's coup-installed defense minister has offered to resign over his involvement in a worsening financial scandal which threatens to derail Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha's chances of remaining in power after elections in November or 2019.
Prime Minister Prayuth is already under fire by pro-democracy activists and others who are dismayed that he has repeatedly delayed stepping down to allow elections after leading a 2014 coup.
His defense minister's financial scandal adds to claims that Mr. Prayuth is not enforcing his coup's promise to stop corruption, but instead wants to keep this Southeast Asian U.S.-treaty ally under military control for the foreseeable future.
Mr. Prayuth continues to warn that the politicians he toppled, including fugitive former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, might return to engage in corruption again.
Ms. Yingluck fled overseas days before being sentenced in August by the Supreme Court to two years imprisonment for "criminal negligence" after failing to stop corruption by her officials in a rice subsidy program.
On January 31, her lawyer said the government froze Ms. Yingluck's estate including millions of dollars worth of property and bank accounts to be auctioned to pay her $1 billion share of the subsidies' losses to Thailand's treasury.
Some of her officials were jailed for their involvement, but Ms. Yingluck was not found guilty of personally profiting from the subsidies.
Ms. Yingluck is believed by many to be requesting political asylum in England, but there has been no confirmation of her whereabouts after she disappeared.
Mr. Prayuth, who was then army chief, toppled Ms. Yingluck's government in 2014 after lengthy street demonstrations by many among Bangkok's arch-royalists, middle class, and rival business leaders who insisted corruption needed to be crushed.
"Some groups want the same old things to come back," Mr. Prayuth warned on January 30.
"So, make a choice between me or a return to old things," the prime minister told reporters.
Defense Minister Gen. Prawit Wongsuwon's scandal over 25 expensive wristwatches threatens to weaken Mr. Prayuth's popularity because the two men are life-long friends and have tried to project an image of altruism and nationalism.
The case unfolded during the past two months when activists and local media revealed Gen. Prawit possessed 25 luxury wristwatches worth an estimated $1.24 million.
The powerful defense minister, who is also deputy prime minister, denied any wrongdoing and said the wristwatches were "loaned" to him by wealthy friends, including one who died in February 2017.
"Just like the Watergate scandal, it's not the original mistake, a break-in, but attempts to cover it up that brought down the Nixon government," wrote columnist Atiya Achakulwisut on January 23.
Pro-democracy activists and Thai media portray Gen. Prawit as "The Rolex General" because he wore the timepieces on his wrist during photographed public events during the past several months.
"Gen. Prawit is a dead man walking on political death row, lacking the legitimacy to say or do anything," wrote Institute of Security and International Studies director Thitinan Pongsudhirak on January 19.
"No one expects the NACC (National Anti-Corruption Commission) to prosecute this case with the full force of the law," said Mr. Thitinan a columnist who also teaches at Chulalongkorn University's faculty of political science.
"If the people do not want me, I am ready to leave," Gen. Prawit told reporters on January 31.
Earlier, he told reporters on January 16: "If found guilty, I will resign.
"I have friends, and my friends lent me those watches. They did not buy them for me," Gen. Prawit said.
"Would the sharing of luxury watches, cars, houses or any other expensive item not be considered a form of bribery?" the Bangkok Post responded in a January 20 editorial.
"Prayuth needs to take drastic action and excise the tumor before the cancer spreads and kills off both the legitimacy of his regime and his bid to become a non-elected prime minister," the editorial said.
"I have never committed malfeasance. No way," Gen. Prawit said on December 6 before meeting the NACC.
Gen. Prawit's explanation to the NACC was not revealed.
The commission's decision may be announced in coming weeks.
"Next we will see senior state officials and politicians claim their luxury cars or houses don't belong to them but to their friends," wrote Poramet Intharachumnum, deputy director-general of a department of the Attorney General.
"If their total value is higher than 3,000 baht ($90) then that would be illegal," Mr. Poramet said on January 26.
Prime Minister Prayuth is reportedly orchestrating a possible extension of power as an unelected premier after the unscheduled election.
His military government's new constitution allows a future parliament to choose an "outsider" if they cannot agree on a prime minister.
An unelected prime minister would need support from at least 375 parliament members out of a total 750, who include 500 elected members and a 250-seat Senate yet to be appointed by the junta.
Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist from San Francisco, California, reporting news from Asia since 1978 and winner of Columbia University's Foreign Correspondent's Award. He is a co-author of three non-fiction books about Thailand, including "'Hello My Big Big Honey!' Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews," "60 Stories of Royal Lineage," and "Chronicle of Thailand: Headline News Since 1946." Mr. Ehrlich also contributed to the chapter "Ceremonies and Regalia" in a book published in English and Thai titled, "King Bhumibol Adulyadej, A Life's Work: Thailand's Monarchy in Perspective." Mr. Ehrlich's newest book, "Sheila Carfenders, Doctor Mask & President Akimbo" focuses on an abusive San Francisco psychiatrist who abducts a female patient to Asia.
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