NCPO faces dilemma over Prawit's stay in office

politics February 06, 2018 01:00

By Political News Desk
THE NATION

MILITARY SOURCES SAY DEPUTY PM WANTS TO RESIGN BUT PRAYUT NEEDS HIM TO STAY



THE RULING junta is facing a major question involving one of its key figures: Should General Prawit Wongsuwan be allowed to step down amid mounting pressure because of his wristwatch scandal?

The dilemma is that even if Prawit resigns, the pressure is unlikely to die down. Instead, his resignation is expected to bring more problems and further undermine the government.

Prawit, the defence minister and deputy premier in charge of security affairs, seems to be disheartened and ready to resign. But his “brothers” in the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) do not want him to leave, according to an NCPO source.

Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha, who also heads the NCPO, is among those who want Prawit to stay on, as much of Prawit’s duties would fall on Prayut’s shoulders if the defence minister stepped down, according to the source, who requested anonymity.

An embattled Prawit told reporters on the military beat and Army commanders last week that he would step down “if people do not want me in this position”. On the following day, more than 50 people gathered outside the Defence Ministry to offer Prawit moral support. The move apparently was aimed at encouraging the government’s number-two to “fight on”. 

For people close to him, Prawit made a wrong move in saying that he would resign. Soon after he made the remark, his critics and political enemies initiated opinion surveys and online campaigns, which have increased the pressure on him – and also the government led by Prayut, his former subordinate in the Army.

The political tide seems to be going against the junta-dominated government. In addition to the wristwatch scandal dogging Prawit, there is also growing public dissatisfaction over the alleged attempt to delay the next general election and the likelihood that Prayut may become prime minister again after the election as a non-elected candidate.

Security agencies have concluded that even if Prawit resigns, pressure on the government would be unlikely to subside, as attacks could be shifted to the prime minister instead, according to the NCPO source. His resignation would instead undermine the government, as it would be deprived of someone who can deal efficiently with security issues. 

A key strength of the post-coup administration has been to maintain peace and order, in which Prawit has played an important role. Without a “powerful figure” such as him in charge, the security work could weaken. Prayut could also double as defence minister but that would overload him with work, and he could be the next target of an attack.

“Without General Prawit in charge, it is believed there will be more disturbances, particularly by hardliners,” said a security source.

The best option for the government is to deal with the pressure calmly and try to have Prawit continue in office for as long as possible. The junta sees that opposition comes from a small “same old” group of people who are campaigning on social media. They do not perceive the pressure coming from hundreds of thousands of people, as was the case in the past.

The prime minister probably will have Prawit stay on for as long as possible. At the least, Prawit could remain until the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) decides whether he committed wrongdoing regarding the watch scandal. 

Prawit did not include more than 20 luxury watches that he was seen wearing in his financial reports submitted to the NACC, claiming that all of them belonged to a wealthy friend.

If the NACC finds him guilty, Prawit will have to step down. But if no wrongdoing is found, the government may have to consider public sentiment again to determine whether people wanted Prawit to stay on.