He’s the godfather of the Thai sex industry – and what he knows about corruption could bring down the Government. By Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy. Photographs: Johnathan Taylor.
If you want to drive to the heart of a political scandal that has shaken Thailand, just tell the taxi driver to head for “Soapland”; a 5km stretch of neon that slices through north Bangkok. Every night, thousands of Thai punters flock to this garish highway flanked by high-class sex clubs, spending (according to one recent academic study) an incredible £1.5bn a year. But as prostitution is illegal in the kingdom, the signs above every doorway say Ap Ob Nuat, Thai for “steamy hot shower massage” It’s hardly a sophisticated front, but until last summer this vast sex industry prospered without attracting unwelcome attention.
Then in July last year, Soapland’s most powerful jao phor, or godfather, broke the unwritten code of silence. Chuwit Kamolvisit, who was estimated to have made between £50m and £100m from the district’s six most exclusive clubs, went on nationwide television to announce that Soapland sold sex and everyone knew it. Chuwit revealed that some of his best clients were senior politicians and police officers, whom he also claimed to have paid, over a decade, more than £1.5m in bribes so that his business, the real business of selling sex, could thrive.
Motivated by what Chuwit described as the Royal Thai Police’s persistent attempts to extract ever-increasing bribes from his sex empire, he then launched a series of allegations that today threaten to pull down the Thai government. Calling newspaper reporters to the front entrance of his Copa Cabana club, the millionaire pimp revealed that he had kept a diary in which was detailed everyone of his company’s commercial and sexual transactions. As a taster, Chuwit alleged that days earlier (on July 7 2003) four senior police officers had used the services of his masseurs, numbers 103, 130, 137 and 299.
The Thai media was gripped by Chuwit’s claims and the headlines ran: Top Cops Got Free Sex And Drinks. Although Thailand’s foreign sex trade, with its Ping-Pong girls, pole dancers and £3 hand jobs, is overt and raucous, the enormous industry that caters exclusively for Thai men had never before been publicly scrutinised, let alone the sexual mores of Thailand’s unchallengeable officials. But now, in downtown Bangkok, General Sant Sarutanond, Thailand’s commissioner general of police, was forced to act and reluctantly ordered an investigation into Chuwit’s claims.
No one publicly berated the Royal Thai Police. With its tanks and military ranks, the police is a paramilitary force that has demonstrated a hardline attitude to those it sees as enemies of the state. An inquiry is currently under way into claims by human rights groups that the Royal Thai Police was complicit in the deaths of 2,849 people, killed last year in a 12-week government campaign to eradicate drugs.
Days after Sant’s bribery investigation was launched, Chuwit called reporters back to the blacked-out doors of Copa Cabana and claimed that police station ‘H’, commanded by Superintendent ‘T’, had been bought off by him for 355,000 baht (£5,220) a month for 10 years. Officers at Huai Khwang precinct (half a mile down the road) were placed under investigation and its commander, Colonel Thitipong Settisombat, suspended. “Transfer The Entire Station,” one broadsheet demanded.
Smelling blood, Chuwit described a “tall police general” with the initial ‘S’ who had secret stakes in two massage parlours. Thai papers gleefully reported: “Officer Has Shares In Sex Venue Firm.” Sant himself was called before the House Committee on Police Affairs, where he admitted that he had a four million baht (£55,000) investment in a hotel in Soapland, but maintained that he had nothing to hide (and launched a libel action against Chuwit).
As the Thai public anticipated further revelations, a rumour spread that the jao phor of Soapland had vanished. For two days no one could find Chuwit. There was no sign of him at Copa Cabana or at any of his five other clubs. Wild speculation filled newspaper columns. Had he been abducted by rogue police officers attempting to shut him up? Maybe Chuwit was dead. Then, on July 11, a dazed man was found by a taxi driver wandering on the hard shoulder of the Bangkok-Chon Buri motorway. He was driven to hospital where he was identified as Chuwit. After being checked over, Chuwit called a bed-side press conference in which he claimed that he had been taken hostage, drugged and beaten by men he said were in the pay of the Royal Thai Police. Even though the police strenuously denied responsibility, the headlines the next day reported: “Chuwit saga: payback time.”
Once discharged from hospital, Chuwit held an impromptu rally outside Government House and warned the crowd: “I am now a man with no future. I maybe shot dead at anytime.” The morning papers all covered the event: “Huge Media Circus Follows Sex King.”
The Thai prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, blanched. Before becoming a politician, he had served as a lieutenant colonel in the Royal Thai Police and had appointed many of his former police colleagues to senior positions in the cabinet and civil service. He needed the support of the police to stay in power. However, Thaksin had been elected in January 2001 on a populist mandate to curb institutionalised corruption and here was a pimp demonstrating that, midterm, bribery was still endemic and its exponents were the police.
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