“Do you mind if I smoke?” asks Chuwit Kamolvisit, withdrawing a lone cigarette out of a crisp packet of Mevius.
We are sitting in the swanky bar that doubles as Chuwit’s office on the ground floor of the Davis Hotel he owns in downtown Bangkok. Thailand’s self-styled “Brothel King” turned anti-corruption vigilante is very much on home turf and famously stubborn—butting heads with police chiefs, prime ministers, and oligarchs—so it feels churlish to object. Still, a murmur of concern escapes; had he not, after all, just been diagnosed with liver cancer?
“It is the advanced stage, final stage, it has spread,” Chuwit, 62, says with a shrug. He is wearing an immaculate white shirt, tie, and dark Ray-Bans, his mustache neatly clipped. “My doctor said to stop smoking, but I asked him: ‘If I stop, will my cancer go?’ No, so let me smoke.”
My mumbled regrets receive short shrift. “One day I’m going to die, same as everyone,” says Chuwit. “I choose the way that makes me happy. I drink a little bit, smoke a bit. Don’t pity me, because my life has been many things.”
That it has. For the past three decades, Chuwit has been an outsize presence in Thai public life and a persistent thorn in the side of its venal establishment. He grew to notoriety as Bangkok’s “Tub Tycoon,” the preeminent owner of sleazy massage parlors—“don’t call me a pimp,” he quips, “I’m a Superpimp!”—before enjoying codas as a real estate mogul, populist politician, TV talk-show host, prison inmate, and anti-corruption crusader.
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It’s this last identity that has captivated headlines in recent months as Chuwit has come forward with a series of explosive revelations. Late last year, he shone a spotlight on how Chinese triad gangs have with the complicity of local law enforcement burrowed into the Thai drugs and vice trade, producing evidence that has led to the indictment of more than 40 suspected criminals and the dismissal of at least half a dozen police officers. (The alleged Chinese kingpin just happens to be married to a Thai police colonel whose uncle is a former national police chief.) “Corruption is part of Thai life,” says Chuwit. “Everybody knows but nobody talks about it.”
Then, in February, Chuwit published a Facebook post accusing a top policeman of operating Thailand’s largest illegal online gambling racket, accepting thousands of dollars in bribes, and engaging in money laundering while serving as the director of at least 10 different companies, including one of the massage parlors that Chuwit used to own. (The officer has been suspended pending an investigation.) That same month, Chuwit also accused Thai Deputy Prime Minister Anutin Charnvirakul of siphoning up to $1 million of funds allocated for a new metro line. (Anutin denies the allegations.)
In August, Chuwit went after his biggest target yet: Thailand’s new Prime Minister, Srettha Thavisin, whom Chuwit accused of tax fraud and skimming from land deals during his time as CEO of property developer Sansiri. Srettha strenuously denies any wrongdoing and has sued Chuwit for defamation.
The furor has further sullied the Southeast Asian nation’s leadership transition following May’s election—polls that Srettha’s Pheu Thai party pointedly did not win. Instead, the anti-establishment Move Forward Party secured the most votes but was blocked from power by a military-appointed Senate. Pheu Thai, which came in second place, then cobbled together a motley coalition of royalist and establishment parties to secure Srettha the top job thanks to Senate backing. “There is no democracy in Thailand,” scoffs Chuwit. “Thai politics is like the theater; there is no reason, no logic, no rules. It’s all a show.”
As Chuwit faces his own mortality, with perhaps only months left to live, he’s determined to make his last, defiant stand against the venality that, he says, seeps into all facets of public and commercial life. “Mr. Srettha won’t stay more than three months as prime minister,” he says. “Because the information I have is crystal clear.”
These bold claims have thrust Chuwit back into his beloved limelight. For many Thais, a mention of Chuwit will conjure up a mental image of a younger man with a silver flip-phone glued to one cheek, another identical model in hand, gleaning the latest intel on official malfeasance from shadowy sources. He’s a chameleon who’s equally at home wielding a silver-topped cane in parliament or bullhorn on street corner, railing at any given moment against the British government’s embrace of Thai fugitives or the nation’s chaotic decriminalization of marijuana.
Today, however, age and infirmity have taken their toll. Chuwit’s once burly physique is now almost skeletal. Inside, too, the fire burns a little dimmer. “When I started talking against corruption, I really meant it,” he says. “But I later learned it was never going to end with me, so now my campaign is merely symbolic.”
Still, many Thais believe that Chuwit is simply self-serving and that his anti-graft campaign is motivated not by lofty morals but by wanting to help friends and settle scores. “For Chuwit to claim that he’s an anti-corruption hero? Come on, seriously!” says Pavin Chachavalpongpun, an associate professor at the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies at Kyoto University. “He’s a political player.”
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Chuwit was born in British Hong Kong to a Thai-Chinese father and a Thai mother, though he grew up in Bangkok’s Chinatown and attended the city’s elite Debsirin School and Thammasat University. He later studied at the University of San Diego—he never graduated—and also spent time carousing around New York and Denver. It was a formative experience that instilled an appreciation of American-style capitalism and blunt speaking.
“Thais are good liars,” he says. “They like to speak softly, smile, say ‘yes ok’ but don’t do anything. I do straight talk. I’m not a ‘nice’ guy.”
After returning to Thailand in his early 30s, Chuwit soon spotted the potential of what are euphemistically dubbed “soapy massage parlors.” Prostitution is illegal in Thailand, but what goes on behind the neon facades of these premises is a very open secret. “When a man and woman jump into a bathtub without any clothes, you have got to be kidding me!” Chuwit laughs. “I saw a money-making machine. I wanted to be like Hugh Hefner—a playboy surrounded by beautiful girls.”
Since massage parlors require a police license, Chuwit saw that a few targeted bribes could monopolize the industry. His first parlor, called Victoria’s Secret, opened in 1989. By the mid-90s, Chuwit was making a million baht ($40,000) in cash each day from six jacuzzi-filled pleasure palaces flanking a busy highway in northern Bangkok colloquially known as “Soapland.” Inside, some 1,200 women crowded into huge glass “fishbowls” for customers to select by the numbers pinned on their skimpy dresses.
Asked whether he feels any shame for how he built his fortune in an industry notorious for trafficking and other abuses, Chuwit—who professes to be a devout Christian—is aghast. “Everybody needs to have sex—this is nature!” he says. “I did not force any girl to work with me.”
Things came to a head in January 2003 when some 400 men razed a ramshackle complex of bars and shops on a parcel of land in downtown Bangkok known as Sukhumvit Square, causing about $3.3 million of damage. The outcry became so loud that then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra visited the site and vowed justice for those evicted. It soon emerged that Chuwit had purchased the land just weeks prior and had already filed a planning application for a luxury hotel. In May, Chuwit was arrested for the demolition and while on remand also charged with procuring women for sex and pimping underaged girls. (He was eventually acquitted of the latter charge since the court determined the three 17-year-olds involved had shown fake IDs when hired). When he got out of jail after a month, Chuwit went to war.
He appeared on national TV claiming that he paid an average of $160,000 every month over 10 years to hundreds of corrupt police officers, who would also be entertained at his massage parlors for free (an allegation that was later corroborated by hostesses in interviews.) His revelations of dispatching trash bags full of cash and trays of Rolex watches to police stations sent shockwaves through Thai society. He also claimed that one senior officer held shares in a massage parlor and that he’d paid $400,000 to the police for the demolition of Sukhumvit Square. Several top officers were suspended or demoted as a result.
As the revelations kept pouring and heads rolled, in July 2003 Chuwit suddenly disappeared. Two days later, a taxi driver discovered a dazed man wandering beside a major highway and took him to a hospital. It turned out to be Chuwit, who from his hospital bed told reporters that he’d been abducted, drugged, and roughed up by goons who claimed to be working on behalf of the police. (The police denied any involvement.) “I am now a man with no future,” Chuwit told an impromptu rally outside Government House after he was discharged. “I may be shot dead at any time.”
It made a legend of Chuwit, who after selling his massage parlors, unsuccessfully ran for Bangkok Governor in 2004. He made another attempt in 2008 that foundered after he punched and kicked a popular TV anchor—though he was elected as a lawmaker in 2005 and again in 2011.
Chuwit’s colorful campaign billboards became a popular topic around the nation’s water coolers and market stalls: his face contorted in crimson outrage, index finger raised in indignation, often appearing alongside his pet bullterrier, Motomoto, whose honesty Chuwit insisted put Thailand’s ruling class to shame. (One memorable TV campaign ad featured a man breaking wind and blaming it on someone else.)
“First I cleaned bodies and then I jumped into politics to clean politicians,” Chuwit laughs. He recalls seeing many of his fellow lawmakers walking around with briefcases full of cash, with “one kilo” code for 1 million baht, since they weigh the same. Certainly, reports of Thai politicians and aides handling large wads of banknotes are bewilderingly common. “Everybody pays in Thai politics!” he says.
Chuwit’s persona as gadfly-in-chief made him a lightning rod for corruption allegations across Thailand; if you have information of skullduggery, Chuwit is the guy to weaponize it. In 2011, Chuwit told parliament about a huge illegal casino operating right under the nose of a major police station in northern Bangkok, prompting a crackdown that led to the suspension of three senior officers and removal of the national police chief.
Meanwhile, Chuwit turned Sukhumvit Square into a public garden—a cherished green space in a congested concrete jungle. But the demolition controversy continued to rumble through the courts. In January 2016, some 13 years after the site was leveled, Thailand’s Supreme Court sentenced Chuwit to two years in prison for trespassing, false imprisonment, and criminal damage. (He only served one and in late 2017, he sold Chuwit Garden to property developers for a cool $130 million.)
“Trespassing on my own land!” Chuwit exclaims wearily of the charges. “But I’m really happy. Because all the bad guys—murderers, rapists—slept next to me in jail, so I could study them. They lock up 100 people in one room. That’s why I know everything that I know now.”
What many Thais continue to question is the true motivations behind Chuwit’s anti-graft campaign. Still, that he has collected far more high-profile scalps than any of Thailand’s official graft-busting authorities is an indictment of a broken system. And the nation’s reputation for murky political shenanigans has only been reinforced by May’s election, which effectively expunged over 14 million votes cast for Move Forward and ran roughshod over democratic principles. Still, analysts doubt whether Chuwit’s campaign against Srettha will bear fruit. “If the allegations made by Chuwit were damning enough to undermine Srettha’s position as prime minister, the Senate would not have voted en masse to support his nomination,” says Duncan McCargo, a professor and expert on elite Thai politics at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.
An hour has passed and Chuwit is still cradling that unlit cigarette. He tells me he is due to travel later this month for targeted cancer therapy in the Scottish city of Glasgow, near to where his eldest daughter lives. As for chances of remission, he declines to say. I share recommendations from when I lived in Glasgow and Chuwit becomes animated as I describe the diverse food scene, nearby distilleries, and friendly, straight-talking people (while cautioning him to pack some warm, waterproof clothes.) He breaks into a huge grin.
“I love it. I will drink whisky, walk in the rain, and be lonely,” he says. “But I love to be lonely because my life is so messy. And I will say goodbye to the Thai people. Maybe it’s better for Thai society without me.” For better or worse, Chuwit will be missed.