Top: Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan raises a hand to shield his eyes from sunlight Dec. 4, 2017, in a cabinet photoshoot at the Government House which launched a scandal over the many multi-million baht, ultra-luxury timepieces he often wears.
Deputy junta chairman Prawit Wongsuwan, aka Big Pom, sure gave his critics and the media a lot to talk about throughout 2018.
There was the collection of undeclared luxury watches he never fully explained – animating memes and mockery from Thais of all political affiliations.
Then there was the time he blamed the sinking of a ferry that killed 47 Chinese tourists – Thailand’s worst maritime tragedy in decades – on the Chinese travelers themselves. His remarks caused tremendous outrage in China, and the number of Chinese visitors plunged for the first time in years. The lost revenues are estimated to be in tens of billions of baht.
That’s not to mention the countless times the 73-year-old general, who also serves as defense minister and deputy prime minister, picked fights with reporters, criticized a former prime minister, defended pro-junta politicians, lashed out at activists in a fury of profanity and banter that always made for colorful headlines.
“We have a saying that Big Pom is the shell impact area,” said Wassana Nanuam, a reporter who attends Prawit’s daily news conference, using army jargon for an area marked for artillery barrage. “He has always been at the center of controversies.”
But despite a turbulent personality that has been an embarrassment to the government, political observers recognize Prawit as the “Big Brother” of the ruling junta, a powerful army man who wields respect across an institution usually known for squabbling factionalism.
Wassana, who’s written multiple books and columns on military affairs, went as far as to suggest Prawit was responsible for keeping junta chairman Prayuth Chan-ocha – nine years his junior – in power.
“We can say that Prayuth is still here today because Prawit is his Big Brother,” she said. “His baramee [influence] is not only limited to the government or the junta, but also over the armed forces and police. His influence is far-reaching. He can use it to settle any dispute.”
Even his chief opponent gives the same assessment. Pro-democracy activist Ekachai Hongkangwan has been staging a one-man protest at the Government House for the past year that’s mostly aimed at Prawit. Ekachai said he deliberately singled out Prawit because he sees the general as the real power behind the junta.
“In all the military right now, Prawit has the biggest influence,” Ekachai said. “Even Prayuth, who used to be the army chief, didn’t have the same influence. All the military and police reshuffles were dictated by Prawit.”
Born 1945 in the capital, Prawit spent his school years at the elite all-male St. Gabriel College and went on to attend the armed forces academy (Prawit famously said despite being bullied there, he “didn’t die” after a young cadet was killed) before getting his first job as an infantryman based in the east in 1969.
Thanks to his connections to the army’s Eastern Tigers faction, Prawit gradually rose through the ranks. He was an officer by 1976, a battalion commander in 1981, a regiment commander in 1989, a division commander in 1996 and army chief in 2004. Big Pom was also close to the palace circle, having served in the royal bodyguards that protect the king’s summer palace in Hua Hin.
As the junta’s second in command, Prawit, especially this past year, at times matched or eclipsed the prominence of his boss, Prayuth. Both men are always the first to comment on the nation’s issues of the day, especially those involving national security and politics.
And, as Wassana said, both men tend to lose their tempers – not always a helpful quality when leading a country.
“Prawit likes to blurt out his thoughts all of sudden,” the writer said. “Big Pom sees reporters as his subordinates … sometimes he feels personally close to reporters, and then he airs his personal thoughts into a microphone.”
It’s unclear how other officials in the government view Prawit, who has caused so much controversy, but after Prawit declined to quit in the wake of the watch scandal, even one of his cabinet colleagues openly criticized him in an interview to the BBC, an unprecedented move in the buttoned-down regime.
According to Wassana, the general is under no delusion that he is much liked.
“He once complained out loud that he was dragging down the government. He knew what he did,” she said.
Ekachai, the activist who has been assaulted by street assailants he believes dispatched by Prawit’s underlings, grudgingly accepts that the powerful man, often photographed in mirthful laughter, is not of sterner stuff like tyrants in other countries.
“If he wanted to kill me, he would have done so already,” Ekachai said. “Even though he is a dictator, he is not cruel like the dictators in Africa. He doesn’t go that far.”
As the regime’s term is about to end – at least officially – with an election in February, Prawit’s future is yet unknown, but one thing is certain: No matter who makes the next government, they will have to acknowledge Prawit’s place in the military.
“He can play a Big Brother from behind the scenes and spare himself the spotlight,” Wassana said. “I think anyone would still know that Pom is the man behind the military. He is the real power.”
Ekachai suspects Prawit might have an even bigger ambitions: to supersede 98-year-old former army chief Prem Tinsulanonda as the most respected elder statesman after his death.
“I think he’s trying to compete with Prem,” Ekachai said. “He’s the only person who dares to.”
Ed. Note: Hours after this story was published, the National Anti-Corruption Commission announced it had cleared Prawit of any wrongdoing in the watch scandal.
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