By The Nation
THE SCANDAL involving luxury watches and rings that is dogging the prime minister’s right-hand man, which has already hit the government’s popularity, yesterday caused the chief of a leading polling office to resign on the grounds that his academic freedom was not being honoured.
Arnond Sakworawich, chief of the polling office under the National Institute of Development Administration (Nida), did not identify what poll topic had pushed him to quit, but Nida’s president, Associate Professor Pradit Wanarat, said Arnond’s latest poll had been about people’s opinions regarding Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan’s luxury watches and rings.
“The scandal is under the scrutiny of the National Anti-Corruption Committee [NACC], therefore any opinions on it could possibly be considered as leading for society,” Pradit said, defending a decision to withhold the release of the poll’s results.
Arnond, who is a lecturer on business analytics and intelligence at the School of Applied Statistics, had just been appointed to lead the Nida polling office.
He wrote yesterday on Facebook that he had decided to quit with immediate effect. “For me, academic freedom and being respected are the most important values. Even before I had a position, I always stood in society on the side of what is right.”
He added that he had supported the coup and government but if there were wrongdoing or injustice “I don’t have lick their [the military’s] boots”.
Arnond said as an academic and Nida’s poll director, he had to stand up to reflect public opinion openly based on scientific evidence, with honesty and bravery. “If I cannot do so, I have no reason to hold the position. I will never betray the people and righteousness,” Arnond wrote.
The poll this week reportedly was titled “The luxurious watches were borrowed: Just distortion or the reality?”, in which 85 per cent of respondents did not believe Prawit’s claims that he had borrowed the expensive wristwatches from friends.
Prawit, who is also defence minister, has been Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s right-hand man as they are both from the Chulachomklao Military Academy. Prawit has held his positions throughout Prayut’s premiership, surviving at least five Cabinet reshuffles.
Recently he has been spotted wearing many luxurious wristwatches, some of them believed to be worth many millions of baht. The NACC has launched an investigation into his possession of the items, which were not included in his public declaration of assets.
Prawit has already submitted an explanation to the NACC, but the body declined to reveal the details of his account. However, a series of news reports released to the public indicated that the explanation claimed a now-deceased friend had lent him the watches.
An NACC member last week hinted that Prawit would be cleared of failing to declare the watches if the report that the watches were borrowed was found to be true.
Associate Professor Phichai Ratanatilaka Na Bhuket, vice dean of Nida’s School of Social Development and Environment, also confirmed on his Facebook page that Arnond’s resignation was because the institute’s administration had suspended the release of the poll results. “That is the end of freedom in academic work, if any administrators have similar ways of thinking as Nida’s president [Pradit],” he added.
Meanwhile, Pradit told The Nation that he had stopped the release of the poll results because the issue was under investigation by the NACC and the poll had not been appropriate because it was directed at an individual.
He said he has not yet talked with Arnond but planned to discuss the issue with him today. He added that Nida always prioritised freedom in its polling, but on the condition that the results of polls did not “lead” public opinion on issues.
“A poll can only be done when an investigation ends,” said Pradit, who is also a member of the appointed National Legislative Assembly (NLA).
Meanwhile, General Akanit Muensawat, another NLA member, shrugged off a demand by activist Sirawit Seritiwat, who called for the NLA to launch a censure debate on the government, particularly regarding Prawit’s watch scandal.
Akanit quoted Prayut as saying the matter was Prawit’s “personal affair”, while according to the Constitution, issues in censure debates had to have consequences for the public and influence policy. The NACC has stated that the inquiry into Prawit’s alleged wrongdoing would end next month.
Nida has been a leading pollster in Thailand but has also been criticised sometimes for apparently supporting Prayut’s government. However, the latest poll released on Friday reported that 76.32 per cent of respondents believed the government and National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) were guilty of irregularities.
Asked whether the government and NCPO had intervened in the NACC’s work, 61.04 per cent of respondents said there had been interference, while 28.72 per cent disagreed.