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
   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
   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," Mr. 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," Mr. Prawit said on
December 6 before meeting the NACC.
   Mr. 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
   His military government's new constitution allows a future
parliament to choose an "outsider" if they cannot agree on a prime
   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.