There is no doubt that Deputy Prime Minister Gen Prawit Wongsuwan has been Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha's Achilles' heel since the junta took control of the country more than three years ago.
From his expensive trip to Hawai to attend an informal meeting of Asean defence ministers in October last year to the latest controversial incident regarding his possession of what appears to be a multimillion-baht watch and diamond ring, Prawit has often been in the public spotlight.
Prawit, who is also defence minister, got away with the former incident as the Office of the Auditor-General found no irregularities in the Bt21-million trip, but observers believe that he may be vulnerable, and indeed his political survival may be at stake, given his apparent penchant for expensive jewellery.
The National Anti Corruption Commission (NACC) last week gave Prawit 30 days to explain how he had obtained a flamboyant Richard Mille wristwatch and diamond ring after the luxury items raised widespread suspicion about the general’s “unusual wealth”.
Prawit has yet submit a letter of explanation to the NACC, but there are three possible ways for Prawit to explain the issue.
First, the items belong to him but he acquired them after declaring his assets to NACC in 2014 when he took office. However, he would still face serious scrutiny over how much they cost and whose money had bought the watch and the ring, which by some estimates would have cost about Bt10 million.
The question has to be asked: Is it reasonable that Prawit, who declared a total of Bt87 million in assets to the NACC, bought the jewellery?
Second, reports this week have speculated that Prawit would tell the NACC that the ring belongs to his mom and the watch to a friend.
In a legal technical sense, he could get away with such an explanation, but the most important thing will be if society at large believes him. In Thai culture, the slick hero “Sri Tanonchai” is a fixture in a series of Thai humorous stories depicting him as the prototypical clever trickster – can Prawit pull off a similar role in the eyes of the public? Is there anybody, in the entire world, who would lend someone else a watch of such value?
The origin of the ring could be as complicated for Prawit. The deputy prime minister has told the media that the ring was “old”. The question is, how old is it? Did he own it before declaring his assets in 2014 or acquire it after? If before, why didn't he declare it. If “old” is not older than three years, and Prawit acquired the ring in the interim, he will be questioned about where he obtained the money for its purchase.
The third possibility would be the safest, with Prawit claiming he obtained both items after 2014.
In this scenario, the ring could be explained as a family inheritance that he simply had not declared as of yet.
But for the watch, if he bought it after 2014, he will be questioned about the source of the money – and whether he really did buy it. It should not be difficult to trace the purchase back to the shop where it was bought. If it turns out that he was given it as a gift, that in itself could land him in trouble for violating the anti-graft law.
According to Article 103 of the NACC Act, civil servants and political office holders are not allowed to receive money or benefits aside from those that are permitted by law or worth Bt3,000 or less.
Regardless of what explanation Prawit chooses, there will inevitably be one more question: Will he be able to convince the NACC?
Vilas Chanpitak, a Democrat Party member with a record for busting graft, has suggested that the NACC itself should be dissolved if the agency believes the explanation.
This could be a significant test for the anti-graft agency and whether members of the public can really place their faith in it to cleanse society of corruption.
The NACC is already being viewed sceptically because its chairman, Pol General Watcharapol Prasarnrajkit, is a former prime minister’s secretary-general attached to Prawit.
Prayut, who has not expressed any concerns about his senior aide and has said the entire issue is an attempt to divide him and Prawit, would be mistaken to underestimate the power of society regarding the issue.
When the powers-that-be flaunt their lavish lifestyles, it cannot be avoided that members of the public will speculate about the origins of such “unusual wealth”, particularly within a regime that has made the fight against corruption a cornerstone of its legitimacy. Amid the economic downturn, how will people tolerate the political elites' displays of such exorbitant wealth while they are still suffering from bread-and-butter issues?