By Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Panarat Thepgumpanat
BANGKOK (Reuters) – A petition calling for the resignation of Thailand’s deputy prime minister attracted thousands of signatures on Monday, heaping pressure on the junta’s second-in-command to step aside amid a scandal over a luxury watch and undeclared assets.
The scandal has revealed growing signs of disgruntlement among the Thai public, and added to uncertainty over whether the junta will call an election later this year that is supposed to move the Southeast Asian nation back toward democracy.
The National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) placed Prawit Wongsuwan, 72, a former army chief who is also defense minister, under investigation after his appearance in a photograph of the cabinet wearing a diamond ring and a luxury watch in December sparked an avalanche of criticism on social media.
Thai netizens have since identified 25 expensive luxury watches that the former general has worn but not declared to the anti-graft body.
Prawit has said that he borrowed the timepieces from friends, but would resign if that was the public’s wish.
According to Thailand’s anti-corruption act, all political office holders must fully disclose all of their assets.
On Monday, a Change.org petition calling for Prawit’s resignation had more than 61,200 signatures.
The minister was attending a defense conference in Singapore on Monday, and a spokesman said he was in “good health”, without specifically addressing the watch issue.
“I would like to confirm that General Prawit Wongsuwan, deputy prime minister and defence minister … is in good health and is ready to dedicate himself to looking after the country’s security,” Defence Ministry spokesman Kongcheep Tantrawanich, told reporters.
The scandal is a sore point for the junta, whose promise to rid Thailand’s politics of corruption was central to its premise for staging a 2014 coup.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who has said a general election will take place in November, last week asked for more time in office to prepare the country for the vote.
Signs of growing impatience with the junta has been manifest in a steady stream of protests calling for a quick return to democracy and in defiance of a junta crackdown on freedom of assembly.
On Saturday, students at a football match wheeled out parade floats poking fun at Prawit while a Bangkok street artist who depicted Prawit’s face in an alarm clock said in a Facebook post that he was facing police intimidation.
Reuters was unable to immediately contact police for comment.
The NACC has said it will conclude its probe this month.
(Writing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)