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Chuwit Kamolvisit – Thailand’s Godfather of Sex turns politician

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Chuwit Kamolvisit is one of Thailand’s best-known celebrities. He fills newspapers and magazines and appears on national television every day. He is charismatic and media-friendly. But Chuwit is not a pop star or an actor.
Chuwit is a sex king. He is the king of the largest sex industry on the planet. For the last eight years Chuwit has owned a string of high-class massage parlors, which have made him one of Thailand’s richest men.
But the 42 year old is playing a dangerous game. Since he recently went public on how many pribes he has paid to the Bangkok authorities, he has been jailed, kidnapped, drugged and threatened. His assets have been seized. His employees have been raped and arrested for prostitution by Thai police in sting operations.

Now, after an illustrious and controversial decade in the entertainment business, Chuwit has decided to candidate in the up-coming elections for the new governor of Bangkok and to fight the country’s biggest problem – endemic corruption.

“I grew up in Bangkok. My father is a Chinese from Hong Kong and my mother is a Thai. About ten years ago, I heard that massage parlors make a lot of money. So I opened one. I started paying the police from the first month I operated.”

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Chuwit looks like Burt Reynolds and talks the talk. He is charming, charismatic and has a great sense of irony and moment. He lights a cigarette and laughs, “Now I have six massage parlors in Bangkok. The normal room rate is 2000B (50$US) for two hours. I make more money than a hotel.“
With police protection assured by a steady flow of cash, Chuwit, the newcomer to Bangkok’s sex industry, went from strength to strength.

Last year the bubble burst. Unidentified men sealed off a shopping plaza on Thanon Sukhumvit, Bangkok’s busiest street and, with intimidation and bulldozers, destroyed 500 businesses overnight. The landlord – Chuwit.
“The police told me that I had to pay because I owned the land. So I paid them almost 10 million Baht. The police asked me for 3 more million and I said, ‘for what?’ And then I was arrested.”

Chuwit spent a month in jail.
“I went to jail for a month and in that month I paid 300.000  (7500$US) because I tried to make my life comfortable. I slept in a big bed, took a shower in the room, I ate good food, I could sign a cheque and I could have more visiting time than anybody else. And I paid 5000 Baht (120$US) for a plate of rice. Imagine that.”

With his back against the wall, and in court on a multitude of charges including the alleged employment of underage girls, Chuwit published lists of police officers he had allegedly been paying millions in bribes for many years. The revelations surprised no one, but they opened a can of worms spilled its contents across the front pages of the local press for a couple of months.

Chuwit insists he paid millions to many policemen in many different precincts. Trays of Rolex watches and plastic bags full of cash allegedly changed hands. Chuwit has the timing of an actor and he divulges the dirt on the powers that be with the skill of a seasoned stripper. He chooses his backdrops (police stations, hospitals, Parliament) as carefully as his shirts. The Thais, long used to abuses of power by the authorities, have been lapping up his every word, every movement and PR stunt.

Chuwit presents himself as a symptom rather than a cause for Thailand’s double standards and tries to establish any link, no matter how tenuous, between his own situation and deeper problems in Thai society.
”We need someone who can stand up and say something true. When I mentioned the initial names they always said ‘oh no no, I don’t know Mr Chuwit.’ Nobody knows me. I tried to say ‘I know where you live. I know you like my close friend.’ When they heard that I tried to fight, they just disappeared.”

The police enquiry into corruption since Chuwit’s revelations could find no evidence of bribery. Nevertheless, several high-ranking officers were transferred to inactive posts, a common procedure to avoid prosecution for police in Thailand. Months later, not a single policeman has been fired.

This summer Chuwit Kamolvisit is a serious contender for the governorship of Bangkok. His face already graces billboards across the city, berating people to fight government corruption. Next year he plans to contest the general elections.
Chuwit sees the corruption on every level of society, right to the top. As we talk he points at the news on the TV in front of us. Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra is shown stepping out of his bullet-proof bus.
“See that guy, he is a politician, but he is also an ex-cop and an ex-business man. So he knows how it is. Before he sent out the satellite, he paid more than 100 million and he had receipts like mine. I have no receipts. I make my business comfortable, convenient.”
Newspapers, NGOs and foreign observers share Chuwit’s opinion that Thailand is fast returning to the bad old days of dictatorship. And the king demanded more accountability amongst police in his recent birthday speech.
“Everybody is afraid to talk and everybody believes I paid the police. Why? Everybody pays, same as me. I try to say to society, ‘we should talk, we should complain.’ If you eat something and it tastes bad, you complain. That’s what I try to say. You have to have a new culture, you say something when there is something bad.”

Chuwit accuses the Prime Minister and his colleagues of the same type of corruption he once fuelled himself, “I admit I paid under the table. And Thaksin knows I paid because he paid the money when he did business. But he doesn’t admit it. People are fed up with this government. They realize that it is totally corrupt. I have the experience to offer them an alternative. I am not a clean guy, but I know how dirty politicians are, how little they care about real people. I don’t know whether I can be a great governor, but I know the other candidates will not be and I can try to do something about corruption. I am a single issue party. Bangkok loses millions of Baht a year because of corruption”

Statements like these have assured the sex-parlor tycoon national stardom. Despite his seedy businesses, many Thais quietly sympathize with the man who talks tough on corruption.
When Chuwit claims the police abducted him – he gets a headline. When he takes the bus after having his assets seized, he gets a headline. He has written three autobiographies, and he performs stand up comedy routines. He appears as interview guest on talk shows.

“The radio stations won’t let me talk. They have a letter from the government sent to every station – don’t let Chuwit talk on the radio. We have passed 14 October, the 30th anniversary (of the bloody fall of a military government). And now we are back in the future. They close my eyes, they shut my mouth. They want Thai people to say, yes yes yes, yes ok. There is real danger for the Thai people.”

In deeply conservative Thailand, where sex is always on tap, but never seen, where up to a half a million women allegedly work in the sex trade, but the sex trade officially doesn’t exist, Chuwit is the odd man out. Hated by his colleagues, the police, PM Thaksin Shinawatra and women’s groups, the massage-parlor owner is determined to keep talking.

“The foundation of our culture is that the man stands higher than the Thai woman. So when we are talking about the Thai male and he has two wives, we adore him. He’s very good. This has to change. But Thai society doesn’t accept that. I don’t see anything changing in the next generation.”

Amazingly, prostitution in Thailand is illegal. But in a society where most deals are made under the table and where up to 20% of the GDP is allegedly generated by crime, millions of sex workers operate openly.
“We have many kind of massages in Thailand, even a 5 star like the Sheraton has massage. And I can say 100% they have something more than massage. Maybe it is better to say whorehouse but you can’t open that here. Because the Thais don’t accept the truth. The mouth and the heart are not the same thing in this country.”

This double standard has led the tycoon into absurd situations.
“The court always asks me, ‘Oh, you do sex in your places?’ And I say, ‘I don’t know, I just charge for the massage and when they do something else beyond the massage, how could I know. I don’t sit in the room. There is no evidence. I must know what happens in the room in the same way the government knows what happens in that room. If they accept it, I will accept it. They charge me with 15 years in jail if I say what happens in that room.”

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Chuwit claims that the sex industry’s roots reach well beyond machismo and discrimination against women, “Nobody wants to work in the sex industry and the girls don’t want to work in my places. Why are they coming to Bangkok, why are they coming to work for me? When people are hungry, they don’t think about anything. A girl who works here can send 60.000 – 80.000 a month (1500 – 2000$) back to her hometown. The government has to alleviate poverty. They can’t come here and say, ‘stop prostitution’. Prostitution exists everywhere, not just in Thailand. But the politicians don’t do anything about the sex industry. All they do is image.”

There has been much talk in the Thai media on the current government’s controversial social order campaign. While closing times of midnight and 1am seem absurd in a metropolis of 11 million, many other activities are decidedly Orwellian and circumspect. Periodically, the government is banning popular songs and books commenting on Thai culture, while trying to lambast Thai women with strange dress codes during public holidays and sending out police to stop teenagers kissing in public. A controversial war on drugs the government has been waging for a year has cost more than two thousand lives and contrary to official PR, drugs, especially amphetamines are still widely available.

Chuwit doesn’t think time can be turned back to a mythical age of pure Thai culture. “Newspapers wrote a hundred years ago that prostitution would soon disappear. Thai society must accept the truth that they have a sex industry. Don’t you think it is ridiculous that the Thai government says there is no sex industry and commercial sex is illegal. How can they say so? “

The Chuwit massage parlors, which employ more than 3000 women and have allegedly made the owner more than 120 million dollars, have the faded period flair of a mid-80s Holiday Inn, their bleak corporate style spiced up with Penthouse aesthetics. Lift doors are covered in centerfolds, wall to wall tapestry features boob-jobbed beauties with perms and high heels, tacky bronzes of vaudeville dancers lurk in alcoves, even the safes in the room have their instructions illustrated by a couple of half-clad females.
The rooms are soulless kitsch – a big round leather party couch in front of a wide screen TV with Karaoke accessories fronts a big bathroom, dominated by a Jacuzzi.
Men don’t come here for the furniture and Chuwit doesn’t enter his places into interior design competitions.
Thai men from all walks of life come to massage parlors because it is an integral part of Thai culture and social life. Chuwit doesn’t have much hope for change.

“Our society teaches everyone when you have no power, when you are kid, you have to be quiet. Even if what you say is true, you should not say it. Our society doesn’t teach us to stand up when we see something wrong. On top of that, the police and beaurocracy are shaped like a pyramid. So from the base you have to send the money up to the top.  The government has said that the police will no longer take money. The government will give them money legally through the lottery. This is not going to be enough. It will never be enough. If the Thais don’t solve the fundamental structure problem, they will not solve the corruption problem.”

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For his 43rd birthday bash, he sent color-coded invitations to the Bangkok police force. Those who squeezed him most got a red invitation.
With perfect timing the police hit back. On the morning of his birthday, all Chuwit’s assets were confiscated. In the afternoon he was arrested for defamation. By midnight he was free, dancing with 500 girls into the small hours. None of the invited officers could make it.

“The average Thai man is a good man, in the evenings he goes home and kisses his wife. But he has no voice in this country. Because I am a crazy guy and I have nowhere to go and because I have the experience of big business and corruption here, I would like to try and change this, give people in Bangkok a voice. That’s what my party Ton Tra Khun Thai stands for. If I make governor, there are ten million people who will tell me what to do to make things better in Bangkok. Right now the governor tells 10 million people how to behave and when to go to sleep at night. I am here to speak up and make a change for Thailand.”

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Postscript: Since 2004, Chuwit has opened a public park on Sukhumvit Road, one of Bangkok’s busiest roads, and has been expelled from parliament for changing political parties once too often. He was also banned from taking a seat as a senator.

Published in Marie-Claire, Sleazenation, Untamed Travel.

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