Watchdog clears Thai junta deputy over luxury watches

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thai Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan said on Friday he was never worried about an anti-corruption investigation that this week cleared him of any wrongdoing over two dozen luxury watches that he did not claim as assets.

FILE PHOTO: Thailand's Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwan arrives at Army Club to attend a meeting between Prime Minister and political parties in Bangkok, Thailand December 7, 2018. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

The National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) ruled on Thursday there was “insufficient evidence” the junta’s second-in-command purposely filed a false declaration of assets or intentionally hid required information, a statement said.

“This matter has never crossed my mind,” Prawit told reporters on Friday when asked about the NACC decision.

Prawit faced fierce criticism on social media after he appeared in a Cabinet photograph last December sporting a diamond ring and an expensive watch because neither item appeared on his public asset declaration.

Thais later identified online 25 other luxury watches the former general has worn but not declared in various photographs since taking public office, prompting calls for his resignation.

The NACC decision, which backs Prawit’s account that all the luxury items were borrowed, sparked a fresh outcry on social media, with some questioning the impartiality of the anti-graft agency.

“Corruption scandals in Thailand have been clouded by political polarization,” said Titipol Phakdeewanich, dean of the faculty of political science at Ubon Ratchathani University.

NACC secretary-general Worawit Sukboon would not comment on the allegations when contacted by Reuters.

The military government has taken several steps to remain influential after upcoming elections, scheduled to take place on February 24.

The race is expected to pit parties favored by the junta against the populist political movement linked to former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, which the military ousted in a 2014 coup.

“While many people have been outraged by the watch scandal, there are some who purposely turn a blind eye on alleged wrongdoings of this government because they support the military and fear the Shinawatras,” Titipol said.

Reporting by Panu Wongcha-um; Editing by Nick Macfie