RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
All right. we're going to shift our focus now over to Thailand. The generals who seized power there in 2014 are promising a quick return to democratic rule. Those generals are still there. As Michael Sullivan reports from Bangkok though, time may be running out because of the deputy prime minister's affinity for expensive timepieces.
MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: If only he'd worn sunglasses at that Cabinet meeting on the lawn last month, then maybe Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan wouldn't have raised his arm to shield his eyes and expose his problem.
PAUL CHAMBERS: You could see this huge watch, this gaudy ring, right there.
SULLIVAN: And the photo of that bling quickly went viral says Paul Chambers, a lecturer at Naresuan University. The watch - a very expensive Richard Mille that Prawit had failed to declare on his assets list. Social media sleuths then discovered a slew of watches on Prawit's wrist in the past few years - 25 and counting, including Patek Philippes and Rolexes. Total value - more than a million dollars, all undeclared and all a bit much on a civil servant's salary. The pugnacious Prawit was unrepentant.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER PRAWIT WONGSUWAN: (Speaking Thai).
SULLIVAN: He initially told reporters he didn't remember where the watches came from or why it was even their business. A few days later, he changed his tune and said he'd borrowed them from friends.
THITINAN PONGSUDHIRAK: This is whitewash, and people are not buying it.
SULLIVAN: Thitinan Pongsudhirak teaches at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.
THITINAN: He's on kind of a political death row. Certainly, he's untenable. It's a matter of when, to me, that he will have to resign because these watches, he can't shake them off.
SULLIVAN: Thitinan also believes it won't end there.
THITINAN: The watch saga, I think, will pave the way for the downfall of this government and the change of government. It's a kind of a fuse that has lit a powder keg of dissent, frustration. The watch scandal is becoming that catalyst.
SULLIVAN: And it couldn't have come at a worse time for General-turned-Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who's eyeing staying on as an unelected prime minister when and if new elections are held. So why can't Prayuth just fire Prawit? Politics.
CHAMBERS: I think Prayuth probably already took his deputy prime minister aside and said, look, you need to control yourself. But I don't think Prawit cares.
SULLIVAN: Paul Chambers of Naresuan University.
CHAMBERS: Prawit has a lot of power and a lot of influence in the army and in the National Legislative Assembly and among many other civilian and military bureaucrats. So Prayuth can't just say you're out.
SULLIVAN: Unlike Thitinan, Chambers thinks Prawit and the military will weather this storm and the investigation by the National Anti-Corruption Commission. But Thai civil society, long cowed by the military after the coup, isn't backing down on this one. And the watch saga has left many Thais wondering what the other military leaders in the Cabinet have to hide. Longtime civil society activist Srisuwan Janya.
SRISUWAN JANYA: (Speaking Thai).
SULLIVAN: "General Prawit's case shows that the military government protects their own," he says, "that they're not serious to solve the problem of corruption. They don't have the morals" he says, "to run the country." But they do have the guns and a new military-drafted constitution that ensures their continued influence in Thai politics long after long-delayed elections are finally held. But Srisuwan Janya is worried, worried in a way he hasn't been for a while.
SRISUWAN: (Speaking Thai).
SULLIVAN: "If Prawit stays," he says, "and if elections are postponed again, it could prompt another uprising against the military" he says, "like the one in 1992." "This is a dangerous time for Thailand," he says. And he's not joking about Prawit's watches.
For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Bangkok.
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