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Friday, Aug. 15, 2003

ANATOMY OF THAI CORRUPTION

Baron of porn spills it all


Special to The Japan Times

HONG KONG -- His pictures beamed across the nation's television stations and front pages of all of its newspapers from down market tabloids to sober-sided broadsheets: the grin on his face was as wide as a melon and he held, fanlike, a huge wad of currency notes for all the world, like a television game show host holding the latest jackpot, or a central bank official showing off the latest issue of freshly designed notes.

He was neither or these. Indeed, his thin pencil mustache and slicked hair gave an indication of his real claim to fame. Physically, he looked to have stepped from central casting as the chief baddie in a gangster film -- close enough to the mark because Chuwit Kamolvisit, the star of the pictures, is Thailand's biggest baron of sex and porn.

Yet with his revelations, some of the opinions have changed, if not from revulsion to reverence, then to a sneaking admiration for Chuwit's daring and sheer guts. He claimed the money was a small sample of the vast sums that he had paid to the police in bribes to keep his massage parlors in business, in all about $60 million, expended at 12 million baht ($300,000) a month.

Chuwit's claims and the police denials of any wrongdoing have become an essential daily soap opera for the fascinated Thai public. But more important, his allegations are throwing a bright spotlight on some of the murkiest corners of Thai life and showing the greed of some of the highest and mightiest guardians of the state, long suspected, but never talked about in public detail.

"It's a great story, and all Thailand is watching for the next episode," said a ubiquitous Bangkok taxi driver, "but I wonder how long Chuwit will live to tell the tale and whether he will get to star in his own movie."

Ratchadapisek Road, a boring thoroughfare running parallel to the airport road, is laden with traffic day and night, but puts on a garish painted face at night thanks to the brightly lit strip of bars and night clubs. This is is Chuwit's main haunt.

Copa Cabana, Hi-Class and Victoria's Secret are among six so-called massage parlors that Chuwit owns on the street. Calling the places massage parlors tells only part of the truth. Health-giving, stress-relieving massages with herbs and fragrant oils are only a small part of the attraction; sex is the commodity that most of the business executive aficionados seek from these establishments. In Thailand, prostitution is illegal, so the sex is normally carefully packaged in massages.

But to call these places brothels would also be misleading. The word "brothel" has a seedy sound that has "low-life dive" stamped all over it. Bangkok has its share of such cheap sex establishments. The tourist downtown area of Patpong Road is packed with bars where girls show special skills with lighted cigarettes or pingpong balls.

Upscale opulence

But Ratchadapisek is on the opulent side of upmarket. The better appointed establishments have luxurious dining rooms for up to a dozen people, hi-fi karaoke rooms and Jacuzzi. It typically costs at least 100 million baht ($ 2.5 million) investment to set up such a massage parlor (leaving aside the under-the-table payments).

It can be a very profitable business, for everyone. According to academic research into Thailand's massage parlors, revenues run to 8 billion baht ($ 200 million a year). At the most reputed establishments, it may cost 4,000 to 5,000 baht for a room plus another 2,000 to 3,000 baht to hire a masseuse for two hours.

Of this, the girl will get 50 to 60 percent, with tips on top. This means that a girl who is in high demand may make up to 250,000 baht a month, not bad in a country where working as a clerk in an office or shop pays 6,000 to 10,000 baht a month.

No wonder that some of the several thousand masseuses are minor film stars or models whose faces also appear in Thailand's glossy magazines. Other masseuses are university students working their way through college. One recent graduate claimed that two-thirds of her fellow students, especially those from outside Bangkok, worked in massage parlors.

The regular Ratchadapisek clientele includes senators, high-ranking government officials plus police and military officials as well as business executives. The parlors also provide a good living for their owners and for Thailand's tax collection. Chuwit claimed to make several million baht a month even after the bribes and paying 3 million baht in tax. Tax officials are taking a fresh look at Chuwit's books. (The academic study noted that massage parlors declared less than 3 billion baht in revenues for taxation.)

Chuwit grumbled that on some days his establishments were full of senior policemen who took all the best masseuses, enjoying free samples as the price of keeping the parlors in business.

While he has really captured the imagination of the Thai public with his juicy revelations, he has -- so far -- carefully not revealed the exact identity of the beneficiaries. He claims to have 1,000 leading names on his bribery list.

At one police station, which he called "H", he said he paid 80,000 baht ($ 2,000) a month to "Colonel T"; a further 50,000 baht a month to superintendents in crime suppression; 20,000 to those in investigation; and 10,000 to those in traffic. Inspectors received a scale of lesser payments, as did deputy inspectors.

On top of this, Chuwit claimed that he spent up to 100,000 baht a month on nontraditional bribes, for such things as home construction, supplying tickets for golf, boxing or bowling. He said that he helped one "tall" police general, one of 10 generals whom he said he had bribed, to become a partner of a man who owns two massage parlors. Three Cabinet ministers also received expensive bottles of European wine, he said.

Chuwit squeezed drama from the methods of delivery, claiming that he delivered money in fertilizer sacks and that he presented a whole tray of Rolex watches as gifts to policemen.

There seems no doubt about the general truth of the allegations of widespread bribery. The academic study of more than 130 massage parlors claimed that owners spent almost 40 per cent of their revenues, totaling 3.2 billion baht, in paying off the authorities. The details that Chuwit has been supplying only add authenticity to his claims.

Payoff in reverse

In a further twist, Chuwit recently appeared displaying another fistful of money: this, he claimed, was money offered to him by police begging not to reveal their names as recipients of his favors.

Almost every Thai, especially vulnerable ones like street hawkers and taxi drivers, live in fear of predatory policemen who stop them on any pretext and demand money or threaten them that they face losing their licenses. Usually, it is for small sums: Pay 100 baht ($2.50) or I'll report you, take your license and it will cost you 500 baht to collect it in a day or so from the other side of town, plus loss of time and work in the meantime.

Most victims are too scared even to protest, though they may say prayers to the Buddha image in their vehicle or stall that they will not be the ones stopped by the prowling police. Many Thais even excuse the police behavior on the grounds that they are poorly paid and have to make extra money somehow, as though the police were the only poorly paid people.

None of the media commentaries on the Chuwit soap opera have any doubts that large sums in bribes have changed hands. The unanswered questions are why the sex king chose to go public now and where the affair will end.

It began early in July when a slightly, but only slightly, disheveled Chuwit emerged to claim that he had been abducted by police for a few days. Nonsense, protested senior police officers, it was a stunt staged by Chuwit himself.

Where it ends is a still more difficult question. Some highly placed Thais may be tempted to believe that the simplest solution would be to remove Chuwit, preferably permanently. But he has played the media cleverly. When he was arrested and put into prison, he kept up a barrage, claiming that he had to pay extra for food, bedding and other necessities, as well as money to keep the prison warders sweet.

The attitude of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra is critical. The premier had earlier promised an all-out war on "the forces of darkness," corrupt elements, drug barons and gangsters, but so far few "Mr. Bigs" have been unmasked. Raids on the homes of two provincial opposition politicians when the ruling Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) party has a stranglehold on politics and the big money suggest that there is more than an element of political vendetta to the campaign.

You might have thought that Thaksin has leaped on Chuwit's list of 1,000 names as a start for cleaning up the police force, often known as "crooks in uniform" in vernacular Thai. But the prime minister was "not at home" when Chuwit came to call with the list. Thaksin is a former police lieutenant colonel, who also has a doctorate in criminology, and became one of Thailand's richest businessmen with his telecommunications company before he scored success in politics. Chuwit indeed expressed sympathy for Thaksin, saying, "I am sure that Prime Minister Thaksin knows how I feel. Just ask him: when he was trying to get the satellite concession, who did he have to pay?"

Maybe that's the problem -- that Thaksin knows the system too well and fears that if he pursues too vigorously, the carefully balanced structure of interests that represents Thailand Inc. may risk being toppled.

Kevin Rafferty is author of "City on the Rocks, Hong Kong's Uncertain Future" (Viking and Penguin Books), a guide to the magic and mystery of Hong Kong's rise to be an international city.


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