Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.
The Thai junta is suffering from a severe crisis of legitimacy as the controversy surrounding one of its strongmen continues to erode the regime’s political foundation. For months now, Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, who participated in the military coup in 2014, has sunk deeper into endless corruption scandals that could potentially threaten the security of the military government.
It all began with a photo of Prawit flashing his expensive diamond-encrusted Richard Mille watch, worth up to $500,000, and a gigantic diamond ring. Thais later discovered different models of high-priced watches on Prawit’s wrist. So far, the total number of his watches has increased to 25. But this number is not static. A Facebook page has set itself the task of uncovering Prawit’s hidden assets. These revelations have forced Thai authorities to investigate the deputy prime minister’s mysterious wealth.
The investigation has proved to be a fake. The National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) has long been politicized and today serves as an instrument for safeguarding the interests of the junta. As expected, the NACC found no evidence that Prawit owns a large collection of luxurious watches — even though members of the cabinet are obliged to file asset declarations before accepting their posts. Prawit never declared the watches he has been photographed with to the commission.
Under pressure from public opinion, Prawit finally said that he had borrowed watches from his friends and already returned them. The Thai media, intimidated in the current climate of fear, opted to leave it that, failing to follow up with further investigations.
As the number of watches has risen, confidence in the junta has fallen. The opposition considered Prawit’s corruption case as a sign of monumental hypocrisy. The junta justified its coup by pointing to the corruption of the civilian government of then-Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. The primary mission of the army was therefore to eliminate corruption from Thai politics.
But corruption has not subsided since the military took power. The problem, indeed, appears to have worsened. Members of the junta have arranged for their relatives to receive high-paying government jobs, and a controversial project to build giant statues in a western province has apparently involved massive kickbacks to military officers. All this shows that the military government is doing more to entrench corruption than to fight it.
Prawit’s “Watchgate” has the potential to derail the junta’s political plans at a moment when the generals are trying to set up a political party to compete with civilian politicians in the upcoming general elections, which have now been postponed to 2019. Even the junta’s backers have openly criticized the poor transparency of the military regime.
Former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, from the pro-junta Democrat Party, stated that Prawit should be suspended from his position until he thoroughly explains the ownership of the watches. The support of these so-called yellow shirts (who supported the coup) has been crucial in legitimizing the military’s intervention in politics. A possible rupture of relations between the yellow shirts and the military could affect the longevity of the military regime itself.
The ultimate objective of the military is to maintain its influence in politics in the post-election period. Thailand has spent more than 10 years now in protracted crisis, and the recent royal succession has intensified it. King Vajiralongkorn ascended the throne after the death of his father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej. But Vajiralongkorn’s eccentric lifestyle and his violent nature have already made his reign unpredictable.
This volatility has compounded the anxiety among Thai elites. It would seem that Prawit’s corruption scandals have provided useful materials to the opponents to discredit the junta.
The obvious solution would be to remove Prawit from the government. So far, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has remained silent about the investigation. But silence represents a dilemma for the government, too. As long as the prime minister refrains from taking action, the public will see this as protecting Prawit.
It remains to be seen how the Shinawatras will exploit the Prawit scandal. Both Thaksin and Yingluck were accused of corruption while in office. Thaksin has sought self-imposed exile since he was removed from power in 2006. Yingluck recently fled the country before her verdict was read out. She was charged with mishandling the rice subsidy scheme that allegedly cost Thailand more than $8 billion.
Can the Shinawatras rely on their red-shirt supporters inside Thailand to undermine Prawit? Since the 2014 coup, the red-shirt movement has been largely dismantled. Today, active political activists are not necessarily red shirts. Mostly they are Bangkok-based urbanites with an anti-junta agenda.
Now Ekachai Hongkangwan, a pro-democracy activist, has launched a campaign to scrutinize Prawit’s hidden wealth. He has mockingly offered to give his own watches to Prawit and has printed hundreds of pocket-size calendars containing pictures of Prawit’s watches and distributed them to passersby. He was detained by the military but eventually released.
The Prayuth government faces a tough choice. If it ignores the allegations against Prawit, it risks inciting popular discontent. If it chooses to reprimand Prawit, it would effectively reveal the failure of its own anti-corruption agenda. The military regime will be destabilized either way.