Tick tock on ‘watchgate’
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.