Tick tock on ‘watch­gate’

Bangkok Post - - OPINION -

Harsh com­ments by Ed­u­ca­tion Min­is­ter Dr Teer­akiat Jare­on­set­tasin over the watch scan­dal in­volv­ing deputy premier and regime “big brother” Gen Prawit Wong­su­won have caused quite a stir. He made the re­marks about the watch saga while at­tend­ing a re­cep­tion at the Thai em­bassy in Lon­don on Feb 9.

Dr Teer­akiat told BBC Thai in a sep­a­rate in­ter­view of his dis­ap­point­ment with the so-called “watch­gate”, say­ing if he were at the cen­tre of such a con­tro­versy, he would have called it quits.

“In this watch saga, if it was I who had been ex­posed, I would have re­signed [from the cabi­net] when the first wrist­watch came to light,” said the min­is­ter who au­thored a book about moral quo­tient.

In a dam­age con­trol bid, Prime Min­is­ter Prayut Chano-cha said “there were no cracks” in the regime while the ed­u­ca­tion min­is­ter back­tracked, of­fer­ing his apolo­gies to Gen Prayut and Gen Prawit who re­mains tight-lipped. The ed­u­ca­tion min­is­ter said he breached eti­quette by mak­ing such blunt com­ments.

Dr Teer­akiat said the re­marks was his per­sonal opin­ions. The min­is­ter also said he did not re­alise his com­ments were be­ing recorded. His claimed was dis­puted by the BBC which in­sisted he was well aware the tape was on.

The min­is­ter men­tioned his faith in the prime min­is­ter which he said was what made him join the cabi­net and that he would stay on in his po­si­tion. “I will con­tinue to work un­til he [Gen Prayut] finds my ser­vices are no longer needed,” he said.

But both Dr Teer­akiat and the prime min­is­ter have got things wrong.

Un­der­stand­ably, Dr Teer­akiat felt the heat and made a U-turn in or­der to save his cabi­net seat. But it is ap­par­ent his fate is sealed. His days in the cabi­net are num­bered.

The ed­u­ca­tion min­is­ter missed a chance to be a hero when he chose to stay on in the regime; but his com­ments re­flect the public’s frus­tra­tion since “watch­gate” erupted in early De­cem­ber when Gen Prawit was spot­ted with a Richard Mille time­piece on his wrist. Other pho­tos show there are more than 20 de­signer watches in his col­lec­tion which he claimed were “ro­tated among friends”. None were de­clared among the deputy premier’s as­sets to the Na­tional Anti-Cor­rup­tion Com­mis­sion (NACC).

Gen Prayut is also wrong in try­ing to turn the high-pro­file scan­dal into a unity is­sue, and reaf­firm­ing his con­fi­dence there are no cracks in his cabi­net.

This is not the first time that Gen Prayut has failed to get it right. His stance on the watch scan­dal since the Richard Mille was spot­ted has only height­ened public scep­ti­cism about his vow when he and the regime seized power in 2014 to weed out cor­rup­tion. His stance has failed to con­vince the public that the is­sue will be dealt with trans­par­ently.

On one oc­ca­sion, he even said the watch scan­dal is Gen Prawit’s “per­sonal mat­ter”, which only in­ten­si­fied public anger.

The fail­ure of anti-graft mech­a­nisms to han­dle the watch saga only makes the mat­ter worse. Ab­so­lute con­trol of the regime over the NACC, with the agency head be­ing a for­mer sub­or­di­nate of Gen Prawit, raises ques­tions about its abil­ity to en­sure trans­parency.

A case in Is­rael where po­lice filed charges against Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu, the coun­try’s prime min­is­ter, over al­leged bribes, would never have hap­pened un­der this mil­i­tary regime.

The prime min­is­ter’s con­tin­ued pro­tec­tion of Gen Prawit — pleas for public sup­port for his deputy — are hyp­o­crit­i­cal. Gen Prayut may be con­fi­dent, or over-con­fi­dent, about the regime’s power. But public dis­sat­is­fac­tion with the regime is on the rise while the pop­u­lar­ity of the prime min­is­ter is nose­div­ing.

Dr Teer­akiat was right ini­tially when he men­tioned a lack of ethics and con­science on the part of Thai lead­ers. His and Prime Min­is­ter Prayut’s fail­ure to pro­tect this prin­ci­ple are a dis­ap­point­ment and may lead to the regime’s demise.

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