BANGKOK, Thailand -- Twenty-five wristwatches totaling $1.24 million
have become painful tourniquets on the arm of Thailand's
coup-installed defense minister.
   The luxury timepieces are also threatening to derail Prime Minister
Prayuth Chan-ocha's chances of remaining in power after elections in
November or 2019.
   For the past six weeks Defense Minister Gen. Prawit Wongsuwon, who
is also deputy prime minister, has been targeted by media photographs
purportedly documenting the dates and venues when he has worn 25
different expensive watches in public.
   "I have friends, and my friends lent me those watches. They did not
buy them for me," a visibly irritated Mr. Prawit told reporters on
January 16.
   That explanation drew immediate demands by activists and others for
a public naming of people who lent watches to Mr. Prawit, plus serial
numbers and receipts proving the purchases.
   The escalating scandal over possible corruption is now impacting
upon the upcoming election to change the military regime into a
civilian-led government.
   "Prime Minister Prayuth has played down the scandal even though it
has the potential to undermine his credibility and jeopardize his
chances of becoming a non-elected premier after the next general
election," wrote Bangkok Post Deputy Editor Soonruth Bunyamanee on
January 17.
   Public complaints about the scandal has led the junta-appointed
head of the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) to open an
   "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.
   "If found guilty, I will resign," he told reporters January 16.
   Serious allegations of corruption among the junta could make the
regime reluctant to hand over power if they are worried about
   "There are fears among regime members that dirt under their rug may
be exposed once their power is stripped away," columnist Wasant
Techawongtham wrote on January 6.
   That could prompt the U.S.-trained military to again delay the
polls, which it has done each year since toppling a civilian
government in a 2014 coup.
   Elections are widely expected to be held only when the military is
confident it will remain in control with military officers and
supporters in a partially-appointed Parliament and a pro-military
future prime minister.
   "Today, nobody nominates me and I don't know if I will accept it,"
Prime Minister Prayuth told journalists on January 4 amid speculation
that he will try to stay on after the polls.
   When he was army chief, Mr. Prayuth led the 2014 coup and then
retired as a general to become prime minister.
   His military government recently rewrote the constitution, allowing
Parliament to choose an "outsider" if they cannot agree to select a
   "I am convinced that Prayuth will become prime minister [again]
after election," Titipol Phakdeewanich, political science faculty dean
at Ubon Ratchathani University, said in an interview.
   "With or without elections, the military is likely to continue to
play a central in Thai politics, at least for the next decade," Mr.
Titipol said.
   "They [the junta] have been wholly unable to imagine giving up any
real power," David Streckfuss, an independent academic in northeast
Thailand, said in an interview.
   "In the minds of the military and the conservative and desperate
Bangkok elite, they must still see the political situation as
threatening, given their fear of having a free and fair election even
under the undemocratic constitution they have imposed," Mr. Streckfuss
   Pro-democracy activists and a previously pliant local media
recently realized the 25 wristwatches provide a way to criticize the
military government without risking detention in dreaded "attitude
adjustment" re-education camps which have silenced most public
political dissent.
   Defense Minister Prawit unknowingly created his own suffering when
he lifted his right arm and shaded his grinning face during a
sun-drenched political ceremony on December 4.
   His immaculate white uniform's sleeve retracted and exposed an
expensive watch on his wrist above a fat diamond ring.
    Internet-savvy Thais on Facebook and other social media -- where
they frequently attack the government with some anonymity -- claimed
the wristwatch was a Richard Mille model worth more than $75,000.
   A popular activist Facebook group called CSI LA 90210
( quickly flooded its site with
previous photos of at least 25 timepieces on Mr. Prawit's wrist, seen
while he attended political meetings, lit Buddhist candles, tested
weapons, congratulated newlyweds, signed documents, prayed at a
temple, announced edicts, or gesticulated at news conferences.
   CSI LA 90210 estimated the unconfirmed value of the 25 watches
total $1.24 million.
   They appeared to include watches by Rolex, Patek Philippe, Richard
Mille and other brands.
   Thais also debated online the carat weight and value of his diamond ring.
   Government leaders, when starting their jobs, are required to
declare their personal assets and list expensive items such as
jewelry, cars, real estate and investments.
   Mr. Prawit's previous asset declarations reportedly did not mention
so many wristwatches or the ring.
   "Why do you see [the wristwatches] on social media and question
me?" an exasperated Prime Minister Prayuth responded to journalists on
January 8.
   As prime minister, he remains a strong ally of Mr. Prawit who in
turn bolsters Mr. Prayuth.
   "The Prawit wristwatch case has been handed to junta opponents as
if on a silver platter," Paul Chambers, a Naresuan University lecturer
who specializes in Thailand's military, said in an interview.
   "They are using it to extend more indirect attacks on the junta itself.
   "It weakens the legitimacy of the 2014 coup which was necessary,
according to [military] leaders, to stop the corruption of civilian
leaders. It might add doubt among Thais to the authenticity of any
future military-backed political party," Mr. Chambers said.
   "Opponents of the current military government are targeting Prawit
and his watches as a point of vulnerability and apparent hypocrisy in
terms of corruption, but given Prawit's utter flouting of the matter,
it is most unlikely to have any significant effect," Benjamin Zawacki,
American author of a new book titled "Thailand: Shifting Ground
Between the U.S. and a Rising China," said in an interview.
   "Prawit has obviously done something that is not above board, and
the public and the media are right in pointing it out," Tom Kruesopon,
a former political advisor to the previous coup-toppled government
said in an interview.
   "It's a personal embarrassment to Deputy Prime Minister Prawit and
certainly to his political partner Prime Minister Prayuth," Mr.
Kruesopon said.