Ethics absent from Thai politicians' mindset

A political bomb dropped on the regime by Education Minister Teerakiat Jareonsettasin regarding the luxury watch scandal will prove whether Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha's ethical standards are on a par with the politicians he has always criticised.

The headlines came after BBC Thai reported on Monday remarks Dr Teerakiat made to Thai students and Thai business people at a reception at the Thai embassy in London.

At the event, the education minister told the audience that the mindset of Thai leaders and politicians are very different from those of UK politicians and that the rule of law among policy makers is not truly maintained.

Soonruth Bunyamanee is deputy editor, Bangkok Post.

Dr Teerakiat cited the case of Lord Michael Bates as an example. The International Development Minister tendered his resignation after being a few minutes late to answer a question in the House of Lords from a fellow peer.

The Thai minister sarcastically said nothing like that happens in Thailand when someone wears 25 luxury watches, apparently referring to Deputy Prime Minister Gen Prawit Wongsuwon who has been spotted wearing of 25 expensive watches that were not declared to the anti-graft agency as required by law.

In a further interview with BBC Thai, the minister, who completed mandatory training requirements and membership examinations for the Royal College of Psychiatrists in the UK, reiterated that no Thai politician would resign for being late for an engagement.

"It is the mindset [of Thai politicians] and it's in their blood that being late is not unlawful nor an ethical offence. It is no reason [for them to resign], said Dr Teerakiat, adding they are very thick skinned -- yang naa is a Thai idiom for being shameless.

"Regarding the watches [scandal], if I was exposed [like this], I would have resigned when the first one came to light," the minister said, meaning the Richard Mille spotted on Gen Prawit's wrist in December, triggering the scandal.

He stressed that what he said was his personal view, and not in his capacity as a cabinet minister. He also insisted that his opinion is not necessarily the same as those of other cabinet members.

Gen Prayut curtly dismissed the media's call for a response Tuesday, saying it's the education minister who has to answer the media's questions, not him.

Meanwhile, Gen Prawit remained tight-lipped over the issue.

It is not normal in Thai politics for a minister to directly criticise other ministers in the same cabinet, particularly those who are his or her bosses.

Still, it is disappointing that Dr Teerakiat said he would not resign from the cabinetdespite his remarks which raised questions about the ethical standards of this government.

The minister has apologised to Gen Prawit, saying that what he said in the UK was a personal opinion and he still had trust in the deputy PM.

It doesn't matter what he said here in Thailand as his statement in the UK is clear and strong enough to pose a dilemma for Gen Prayut.

Education Minister Teerakiat Jareonsettasin has criticised the ethical flaws of those in power, citing Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon's watch scandal. (Post Graphics)

Gen Prayut is being forced to choose between the two men -- one who has lost public trust and given an excuse for the watches that have become an international joke and the other who has called on this government to lift its ethical standards and accountability.

Any decision, or no decision, by the prime minister may not affect the stability of the government, but it will definitely diminish public trust in him.

Gen Prayut has expressed full support for his "big brother" regarding the watches scandal. In a recent mobile cabinet meeting in Chanthaburi, the premier asked residents to not only love him but also his deputies and all his ministers.

He suggested that if anyone had to leave the cabinet at this time, it would cause his government problems.

This display of backing for Gen Prawit shows the prime minister prioritises government stability over ethical standards.

But Dr Teerakiat's remarks should be an eye opener.

Ethics and the rule of law are what the Prayut government should stand for as legitimacy is an issue for this government, which came to power via a coup.

Gen Prayut criticises politicians, especially those in the past government. He has also urged people not to allow these "bad" politicians to regain power.

He assures us that his government is free of corruption and strives for good governance and ethics. However, the watch scandal gives the impression that the regime is not very different from the politicians Gen Prayut likes to put down.

I do not expect Gen Prawit to show any conscience and resign. How can we hope to see such a thing from someone who shamelessly told the public that all 25 expensive watches he was pictured wearing belonged to friends and that all the timepieces were returned.

Such an excuse may have convinced the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC), but the public will continue to have their suspicions.

The resignation of politicians during a crisis is normal practice in many countries, particularly developed ones.

Such resignations do not only happen when they make a mistake or commit an unlawful act.

They also happen when they want to show they respect public opinion, even though they are not legally in the wrong.

These ethical standards seem too high for Thai politicians, including those in this government, to comprehend.

Gen Prawit has lost public trust regardless of the NACC investigation. Gen Prayut as well as the regime as a whole will be in the same boat if they continue to do nothing regarding this issue.

I still hope the prime minister will respect public opinion even if Gen Prawit does not.

This is the only way he can prove he and his government are different from the typical politicians he dislikes.

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