In polls run-up, ex-magnate of Thailand’s sex trade revives crusade against graft

Wilawan Watcharasakwej
In polls run-up, ex-magnate of Thailand’s sex trade revives crusade against graft Activist Chuvit Kamolvisit wanders around Sukhumvit Road in Bangkok to speak out against corruption and the loosening of Thailand’s cannabis laws, March 29, 2023.
Wilawan Watcharasakwej/BenarNews

As Thailand gears up for elections, a former titan of the sex industry who flirted with politics and transformed himself into a gadfly going after the rich and powerful is back as a crusader against corruption. 

Chuvit Kamolvisit, who built an empire of strip clubs and soapy massage parlors before he became a whistleblower and gave all that up, has launched an anti-graft campaign in the streets during the run-up to the May 14 polls. In his past life, he was nicknamed “the Tub Tycoon” and “Super Pimp.”

Armed with a bullhorn as he wanders Bangkok’s districts, he has been railing and cursing at his targets with a trademark sneer. 

Chuvit has spared no parties or politicians in his one-man campaign against deep-seated graft and what he sees as the social ills from Parliament’s move last year to loosen the country’s cannabis laws.   

“I think corruption is like the final stage of cancer, it can’t be cured, it can’t be healed,” Chuvit, 61, told BenarNews as he campaigned along Sukhumvit Road recently.

The avenue in central Bangkok is a magnet for tourists where marijuana shops have sprouted up lately. It’s a regular stop for politicians on the campaign circuit. 

“The frail body is struggling to survive on a daily basis in terms of politics, business, police and the bureaucratic systems,” Chuvit said.   

He still has a mustache but it is going gray, and he is much thinner than during those heady years when Thais also knew him as the “Massage Parlor King.”

Chuvit has made many enemies along the way, but he has admirers as well.

Priew Daojai, a 36-year-old Bangkok resident who was listening to Chuvit speak on Sukhumvit Road, said she was a fan.

“I like what he does. We have to have someone like him to fight corruption. But I don’t think we can solve it because corruption is everywhere and is increasing. I hate corruption,” she told BenarNews.

Another resident of the Thai capital said that the economic hard times for grassroots people in the country were getting worse.

“I think corruption currently occurs more than before,” said Pornpirun, who asked that BenarNews not use her full name for privacy reasons.  

Chuvit Kamolvisit, a former massage parlor tycoon-turned-politician and a candidate for his Rak Prathetthai (Love Thailand) party, campaigns in Bangkok’s notorious Patpong district, June 21, 2011. [Damir Sagolj/Reuters/File]

Although most parties and contenders in the electoral race are pledging to fight corruption if Thais vote for them, one of the main targets in Chuvit’s pre-polls crusade is the Bhumjaithai Party and Anutin Charnvirakul, the party’s leading light and health minister in the caretaker government. 

He was a driving force behind Thailand’s decriminalization of cannabis.    

As a result of amending the criminal code, Chuvit contends, marijuana is available for public consumption against the law’s intent.  

“You can go to Sukhumvit Soi 11 and photograph ganja trucks selling marijuana cigarettes. There are such things everywhere in Khao San Road and so on,” Chuvit said.

After the laws were loosened last June, food and drink products laced with marijuana have popped up at cafés, restaurants and 7-Eleven stores, such as in cannabis-flavored ice cream, cookies, smoothies, juice, iced tea, and croissants.

At the time many Thais were concerned, confused and even angry about the policy change, saying that a law to regulate marijuana consumption did not accompany its partial legalization. The change brought about the indiscriminate use of cannabis, critics said. In the first few weeks, at least 40 people were hospitalized after consuming cannabis, including nine minors.

“This is an example of corruption at the policy level,” Chuvit said about the loosening of the law on cannabis use. 

“Then the political parties used the money gained from it to buy off MPs from other parties – 40 to 50 million baht [U.S. $1.17 billion to $1.47 billion] each – to join their parties,” he claimed. 

“Don’t vote for bad politicians.” 

As BenarNews followed him around, Chuvit went from place to place chatting with pedestrians and giving away pins and T-shirts inscribed with slogans like “No Corruption” and “Anti-Free Cannabis.” 

Last week, Bhumjaithai Party sought a gag order to stop Chuvit from targeting it with his public criticism, alleging that he was spreading false information. But the civil court refused to grant an injunction, citing Chuvit’s right to free speech. 

‘I’m no angel’

Chuvit, who was born in Hong Kong, is the former owner of the Davis Group, an entertainment conglomerate that operates soapy massage parlors and strip bars in Thailand’s red-light districts. 

The lucrative nightlife industry is a gray and seamy world where criminality mingles with and blurs the lines of legal businesses.

In 2016, Chuvit was sentenced to prison for two years after he hired dozens of enforcers to intimidate and bulldoze bars that were squatting on his property after their leases had expired. 

As a businessman thriving from the sex trade, Chuvit had grown used to having to pay off authorities with bribes, he alleged.  

“I paid a lot of money to officials until one day, I thought I’ve had enough,” he told BenarNews as he explained why he gave that all up. 

Regardless of the type of businesses, Chuvit said, “You still need to pay for officials to make them work for you, to get things processed.”

After years of greasing the palms of officials to keep his enterprises running, he sold his massage parlors and strip clubs and then declared war against bribery and kickbacks. That’s when he was reborn as a whistleblower who helped expose corruption tied to the sex-trade.

“I’m no angel. I’m not just a criminal – I’m the king pin,” he said, reflecting on his life.

After selling off his business empire, Chuvit ran for Bangkok governor in 2004 but lost. He was elected to parliament a year later but disqualified soon after as an MP for the Chart Thai Party because he had not been a party member for the requisite minimum number of days before being elected.

Thai politician Chuvit Kamolvisit points his holy knife as he performs an oath taking as the opposition to fight corruption, outside Parliament in Bangkok, July 19, 2011. [Apichart Weerawong/AP Photo/File]

Last year, Chuvit churned up a storm of controversy and grabbed headlines after he helped expose alleged links between the Royal Thai Police and the Chinese criminal underworld. 

Chuvit accused some of the police of being crooked by supporting Chinese kingpins and “triad” syndicates in their illicit businesses in Thailand. 

Chaiyanat Kornchayanant (also known as Tu Hao), a Chinese national who gained Thai citizenship and was married to a Thai policewoman, was arrested in November 2022 on charges related to drug trafficking and transnational crime.

According to reports, he had donated 3 million baht ($83,300) to the Palang Pracharath Party, the anchor party in the ruling coalition that has deep ties to the military and Thailand’s former junta government. 

For his efforts in serving as an informant before police conducted raids tied to the Tu Hao case, Justice Minister Somsak Thepsuthin announced in December that his ministry would reward Chuvit with 5% of the assets seized by the authorities from the so-called gray businesses, the Bangkok Post reported.

But according to an article in KomChadLuek, another local news outlet, Chuvit said he did not want to accept the reward.

When BenarNews asked him whether Thailand could ever have a clean and transparent government, Chuvit was quick with his reply.

“No. There is no way we can have a non-corrupt government because when they buy off MPs, they have to regain personal benefits,” he said. “To have a coalition government, they have to pool them together – [It’s] a circle of corruption.”


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