BANGKOK — Thailand’s embattled defense minister, caught up in a scandal over his collection of $100,000-plus wristwatches, has offered to resign as corruption charges suddenly threaten to derail authoritarian Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s plans to use national elections to cement his hold on power.
Rights groups are already criticizing the decision to amend Thailand’s election law to put off a national vote to restore full civilian rule promised for November to early next year. Many see the delay as an effort to buy time to shore up support for the military-dominated National Council for Peace and Order.
Defense Minister Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan’s troubles threaten to dent Mr. Prayuth’s popularity because the two lifelong friends have tried to project an image of incorruptibility and nationalism to justify the 2014 military coup that drove the country’s long-squabbling political parties from power. After his protestations of innocence met with wide derision, Gen. Prawit changed course abruptly this week.
“If the people do not want me, I am ready to leave,” Gen. Prawit told reporters Wednesday.
But the watch scandal exposed a rare chink in Mr. Prayuth’s armor, after he rejected human rights groups’ criticism of his record and refused to commit to holding national elections this year as he originally promised. Thailand is the world’s only nation still under formal military rule.
Pro-democracy activists and the Thai media portrayed Gen. Prawit as “The Rolex General” after it was disclosed he wore 25 luxury wristwatches worth an estimated $1.24 million during the past several months at photographed public events. The watches appear to include Rolex, Patek Philippe and Richard Mille brands.
“The Prawit wristwatch case has been handed to junta opponents as if on a silver platter,” Paul Chambers, a Naresuan University lecturer who specializes in Thailand’s military, said in an interview. “They are using it to extend more indirect attacks on the junta itself.”
The prime minister is fighting back, warning voters that the politicians he toppled, including fugitive former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, are angling to resume their corrupt, ineffective ways.
“Some groups want the same old things to come back,” Mr. Prayuth said this week. “So, make a choice between me or a return to old things.”
Ms. Yingluck fled overseas in August just before the Supreme Court sentenced her to two years in prison on charges of criminal negligence for her role in a troubled rice subsidy program. On Wednesday, her attorney said the government froze Ms. Yingluck’s estate, including hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of property and bank accounts, to pay her $1 million share of the subsidies’ cost to Thailand’s treasury.
Mr. Prayuth, who was then army chief, ousted Ms. Yingluck’s government after street demonstrations by many among Bangkok’s arch-royalists, middle class, and rival business leaders who insisted that corruption must be crushed.
But the wristwatch scandal has had surprising staying power. Some argue that, as with American political scandals, the government’s response may prove even more harmful than the original transgression.
“Just like the Watergate scandal, it’s not the original mistake, a break-in, but attempts to cover it up that brought down the Nixon government,” columnist Atiya Achakulwisut wrote on Jan. 23.
“Gen. Prawit is a dead man walking on political death row, lacking the legitimacy to say or do anything,” analyst Thitinan Pongsudhirak of the Bangkok-based Institute of Security and International Studies said last month. “No one expects the [National Anti-Corruption Commission] to prosecute this case with the full force of the law.”
The commission’s decision could be announced in coming weeks.
The Bangkok Post warned in a recent editorial that Mr. Prayuth “needs to take drastic action and excise the tumor before the cancer spreads and kills off both the legitimacy of his regime and his bid to become a nonelected prime minister.”
In one sign of the Prayuth government’s nervousness, authorities over the weekend filed charges against seven democracy activists for calling for elections and an end to military rule, The Associated Press reported.
Thailand has been under de facto military rule since the 2014 coup. One law bans gatherings of over five people. Sedition, or illicit efforts to bring about change in the country’s laws, is punishable by up to seven years in prison.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.