Sex, bribes and publicity

When Chuwit Kamolvisit fell foul of the law, the millionaire brothel owner began a vengeful campaign to bring the corrupt policemen on his payroll down with him. Jan Mcgirk reports from Bangkok
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The Independent Online

Chuwit Kamolvisit is a slick Bangkok billionaire with a pencil-thin moustache and a very big mouth. He readily owns up to making his profits from a string of massage parlours and brothels in the city, and is currently dominating Thai newspaper headlines on a daily basis by voicing his vexations about the Bangkok vice squad. His rowdy press conferences titillate the public with increasingly sordid revelations about the police, and have become so popular that he is launching a talk show. The programme, in which he rants on stage in the same manner as that employed for his press conferences, has just started. Tickets are hot items and are being scalped for triple the face value of 500 baht.

"This isn't a romantic comedy. It's a war movie. Somebody has to die in the end," says the satin-shirted mogul.

Thai audiences are willing to pay to watch the sex tycoon transform himself into a civic avenger by coming clean about his dirty business deals. His hastily written new book, The Golden Bathtub: the Origin of Sex and Every [Other Scandalous] Thing, is a bestseller. His name has become a slang term for blatant bribery. Over the past decade, Chuwit says he has greased police palms to the tune of $2.5m in bribes.

Daring to break the underworld code of silence has brought quick results: 17 prominent law-enforcement officials were suspended last week and 11 more will be transferred away in disgrace. This has only come about as the result of histrionics on Chuwit's part: he threatened to burn a blacklist naming 1,000 police who had received his handouts if the Thai Prime Minister would not personally accept it. (Chuwit slunk away, with the list in his pocket, when the Prime Minister snubbed him and denied him a photo opportunity.) He also unearthed a kind-faced Buddhist nun who would publicly vouch for his good character.

When Chuwit was named by the government as a cog in the Thai mafia wheel that hinders proper business practice and scares away would-be foreign investors, he was incensed. He had assumed he would get away with razing the Sukhumvit Square nightstrip in central Bangkok. He owned the property - which was cluttered with cheap beer bars, flophouses and stalls selling tourist tat - but he envisioned a place less squalid and more profitable. It would be his seventh heaven: another mammoth massage parlour and spa, which he'd call the Taj Mahal. He thought of himself as a Thai Hugh Hefner, not a sleazy Tony Soprano.

Being a man of action, Chuwit preferred not to renegotiate his leases or wait for them to expire. Instead, it is alleged, he simply hired 152 heavies to stage a pre-dawn raid on Sukhumvit Square last January, while he was conveniently out of the country. As tenants and squatters slept, long after the last trick of the night was turned and all the late-night dives were shuttered, ex-army engineers in bulldozers moved in to demolish the entire block. Residents woke up amid falling rubble, their belongings and businesses buried under bricks and plaster.

Chuwit's reputation was reduced to dust at the same time. Overnight, the massage tycoon was publicly reviled as just another greedy mafia don.

The case against him has now dragged on for six months and has even pitted the police against the army, with military officers accused of moonlighting as a security firm. The public prosecutor eventually charged Chuwit with conspiracy to trespass and nothing more, but the wealthy entertainment entrepreneur was nevertheless displeased at having to spend the month of May behind bars.

Next came accusations that Chuwit had made his millions as an exploitative pimp for paedophiles. Several of the slender Thai girls who give massages to his most important clients are said to be underage, and he has been denounced for promoting child prostitution in the backrooms of his upmarket parlours.

The reputation of his luxury spas - Victoria's Secret, Copacabana, Hi-Class, Honolulu Love Boat, Emmanuel and Sea of Love - was suddenly besmirched. It did not seem to matter that government ministers and top military brass were regular patrons, paying £100 to rent a private room for two hours of entertainment, which costs extra. There is much more than traditional massage on offer at these places: karaoke marathons, jacuzzi whirlpool baths, miniature golf ranges and corporate pleasure suites that can accommodate 15 clients at a time. Masseuses sit provocatively behind a plate-glass shop window and charge by the hour. If the authorities succeed in closing down these businesses, 5,000 employees will be jobless, by Chuwit's reckoning. He is furious.

It is for this reason that Chuwit rounded on the policemen who, he says, happily pocket his weekly bribes. What's the point of paying so much protection money if the top cops won't come through for you? Chuwit complained that he was wasting upwards of 12m baht (£178,000) in monthly pay-offs to four precincts that patrol the red-light districts where he runs his deluxe brothels-cum-spas. Although he might prefer simply to hop on his Harley and let the accusers eat his dust, Chuwit has publicly dressed down the police for not earning their extortion payments. He claimed he paid police inspectors 50,000 baht every time they visited, to keep them from going beyond the lobby into the illicit service rooms upstairs.

A flamboyant Elvis fan, the 42-year-old Chuwit boasted to the newspapers about his routine bribery of officers with sacks full of cash, trays of Rolex watches, imported cars plus free sex and drinks. "But they weren't happy after the amounts came in envelopes," he added. The massage mogul admits he is probably the least likely man to expose police corruption in the Thai capital, but says that he is being hounded. "Even a cornered dog at least barks to defend itself," he said. "I am human."

This kind of public confrontation is normally anathema to the self-effacing Thais, who consider arguments to be counter-productive and ill-mannered. The Thai ideal is to maintain Jai Yen - a cool heart - and to find a discreet way around life's obstacles.

But Chuwit, who earned an advanced business degree at San Diego University in the US, has forsworn tradition and unleashed his inner child. He teases; throws tantrums. When he blabbed all to the press, he made sure that his statements could not be deemed slanderous. But he dropped broad hints, musing that one crooked cop's surname begins with a certain letter, and citing an obvious rhyme for another. He even promised to shut up and stop embarrassing the force, if the national police chief, Sant Sarutanond, was replaced.

With some self-satisfaction, Chuwit embarked on what he calls a "kamikaze bombing mission" against police corruption, and the commercial sex king now styles himself an anti-hero. The local media hasbegun hailing Chuwit for his honesty, however belated, while the police department has gone on the defensive. The police find themselves up against a plucky underdog, who howls that police are failing to deliver the services for which he paid them. "Enough is enough. I'm a mad dog now," he said. "If they can't help me out of something trivial, I see no reason why I should continue paying."

Thailand's Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, is a former policeman and has staked his government's reputation on a new drive to root out what he vaguely terms "dark influences" across the kingdom. He appears nonplussed by Chuwit's antics and promised to demote the police who were on Chuwit's payroll. Chuwit mockingly posed alongside a stack of cardboard coffins, which he said were intended for the most corrupt police officers.

When Chuwit told a press conference that official transfers of the "guilty" officers could never solve the corruption problem, but would merely transplant the same problems to virgin territory, Thaksin changed tack. Corrupt policemen would be granted three months in which to reform, he said, and only guilty officers would face discipline afterwards. The Prime Minister suggested that, realistically, it would take at least five years to purge corruption from a police force that is 200,000 strong. About 10 per cent of the force are assumed to be on the take.

Many senior Thai police feel entitled to receive suay - or tribute - from anyone who makes money in the city zone under their authority. In return, the police will either offer protection or ignore business practices that skirt the law. "The old Siamese concept of suay is rooted in feudal culture," says Pravit Rojanaphruk, a Bangkok political commentator. "It refers to the tribute sent by the weak to the powerful, and by the powerful to the even more powerful. Tribute trickles up all the way to the top."

In the most unexpected turn of events, in a month of melodramatic twists that captivated the Thai public, Chuwit abruptly disappeared. He reappeared less than 48 hours later and was mocked by the police for staging his own kidnap in order to stay in the headlines. Chuwit, clearly relishing his new celebrity, insisted that some disgruntled policemen had abducted him on 10 July and roughed him up. Their motive was to silence him, he said, and defiantly showed the media the spot where he was supposedly dumped from their car. Chuwit was briefly arrested for perpetrating a hoax, and released the same day on bail.

When Chuwit was hauled up to testify before a congressional committee on police affairs, he refused to name bribe-takers because he was denied witness protection for himself and his family. Chuwit has also filed countercharges against policemen and an ex-army captain for perjury, and insists that he did not fake being drugged and abducted.

"I don't have any real proof," he admitted during a gruelling two-hour session. "Had I used hidden cameras, or taped my conversations with the bribetakers, or even made them sign receipts for the bribes, they would have all been dead," he told the committee. What Chuwit did produce were hundreds of pages of signatures, which he claimed were records of police officers who had signed up for free massages. Because subordinates customarily signed for their powerful superiors, there were few new revelations. The committee concluded that there were indeed grounds to believe Chuwit's allegations of bribery.

Later, at the Copacabana Club, some of Chuwit's hostesses gripe about the difficulties of pampering policemen. "Cops can be fussy and choosy. Some get nasty when upset. They look down on us, and are bad for business," remarks a mini-skirt-clad Da. She says the parlour pays her 25 per cent less for entertaining a policeman, and that the police officers rarely give tips.

Although reviled by feminists and human rights activists, Chuwit is known as a generous employer. He likes to think of himself as a family man - or rather, a man with numerous families.

"I have two kids in the States, I have two kids here, and another wife with another kid," he says. "Every girl has no problem - we share the same house, the same cars. I have no problem, there is no conflict. The only problem I have is the police." And the massage mogul is doing his utmost to rub them up the wrong way.