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New York Times
18 Nov 2023
Sui-Lee Wee

NextImg:A Dying Anticorruption Crusader Considers His Life’s Own Misdeeds

His anticorruption crusade has made him a household name in Thailand, but Chuwit Kamolvisit would be the first to tell you that his own life has been neither admirable nor one others should emulate.

A self-professed “super pimp” — and known to others as “the godfather of sex” — Mr. Chuwit, 62, once owned six massage parlors in Bangkok where 2,000 women worked for him.

And he got his start as a whistle-blower, some two decades ago, by relying on his insider’s knowledge of bribery schemes.

Prostitution is illegal in Thailand, and to get the authorities to look the other way, he says he gave police officers cash delivered in black bags, as well as Rolex watches and free services in his establishments.

The arrangement suited him for years. But when he was arrested in 2003 on charges of hiring hundreds of men to raze dozens of bars and other businesses in central Bangkok, his detention was a clear signal he had lost his police protection. So he decided to speak out. He held a news conference where he revealed that he had a list of more than 1,000 names of cops he had bribed over the years.

One of the now-shuttered massage parlors once owned by Mr. Chuwit in Bangkok, in September.Credit...Lauren DeCicca for The New York Times

In a conflict-averse society that has almost no culture of whistle-blowing, Mr. Chuwit’s sensational descriptions of official malfeasance captured the country’s attention, and he has largely held it since.

“When everybody’s quiet, you just whisper and everybody can hear you,” he said.

Mr. Chuwit tends to not whisper — he growls, loudly, and smashes things, literally. A lean man with slicked-back white hair and sunglasses that he never took off during a two-hour interview, Mr. Chuwit has enthralled the Thai public for years with the litany of evidence he has presented against corrupt police officers and government officials.

His revelations became such a draw that two television channels each gave him his own talk show in 2017, including one, “Chuwit Smacks You In The Face,” on which he would list all the ways the police were corrupt.

The other show, “Chuwit’s Got Stories To Tell,” ran for eight months on Thailand’s most popular news program. His 20-minute segment opened with him yelling into a megaphone: “Wherever there’s a problem, whatever trouble you have, I will be there. Chuwit’s got stories to tell!”

But now, his career of calling out abuses of power is coming to an end. Not because he thinks he has helped rid Thailand of widespread corruption. But because he is dying.

Diagnosed with Stage 3 liver cancer in July, he was given eight months to live, though patients can live longer.

He’s spending his final days looking back at his past with some regret and self-recrimination, much of it tied to his role in the sex trade, which made him rich but at the cost of human misery.

Mr. Chuwit holding a portrait of himself. He says much of intelligence on official corruption now comes from his more than 2 million Facebook followers.Credit...Lauren DeCicca for The New York Times

“The way they talked to me so desperately, it’s like all of them — their backs against the wall,” he said, his voice tapering off as he remembered the sex workers.

“He benefited and profited from sex workers,” said Siri Ninlapruek, a transgender L.G.B.T.Q. activist campaigning for the welfare of Thailand’s prostitutes. “They earned him a lot of money so that he could pay a lot of bribes.”

But it wasn’t the pangs of a guilty conscience that led him to go public with his bribery claims. Instead, it was fury at what he saw as his own mistreatment.

Starting in the early 1990s, he said, he paid law enforcement officers about $17 million in bribes over a decade to keep his massage parlor businesses running.

Then, in 2003, a complex of bars and shops on a plot of land in downtown Bangkok was demolished by hundreds of men early one morning. Mr. Chuwit became the prime suspect after it emerged he had bought the land a few weeks before and had filed an application to build a luxury hotel on it.

He was arrested, and although soon out on bail, he knew he had lost his bribe-bought immunity. He was also accused of hiring underage girls to work in his massage parlors, though he was later acquitted on those charges.

As he complained 20 years later about the police turning on him, he compared his situation unfavorably with the drug kingpins depicted in “Narcos: Mexico,” the Netflix series: “When they paid the money, they were the boss, they could do everything!”

The same year as his arrest, Mr. Chuwit formed his own political party and made an unsuccessful run for the governor of Bangkok. In 2005, he became a member of Parliament. In 2008, he ran again for governor but lost after he punched a reporter in the face for “humiliating” him. In 2011, Mr. Chuwit formed another political party, Love Thailand, campaigning on an anticorruption platform.

A sticker featuring Chuwit Kamolvisit with an anti-corruption message. His efforts have won praise, though some have questioned his motives.Credit...Lauren DeCicca for The New York Times

In 2015, after denying for years that he was the mastermind behind the 2003 razing, Mr. Chuwit pleaded guilty, informing reporters, “it was a huge relief to tell the truth.” He said he had smashed the buildings because he was dealing with tenants who didn’t want to leave.

In January 2016, he was sentenced to two years in prison. He was released in December that year under a royal pardon, but the confinement shook him.

“You’re like a dog in a cage,” he said. “It’s not like in a Hollywood movie — one cell room with two persons. No, no, no, this is Thailand. You have to sleep 100, all together.”

While his evidence of official wrongdoing was initially gathered thanks to his own complicity, he now says he gets information sent to him on Facebook, where he has more than 2 million followers.

Last year, Thailand’s justice minister praised Mr. Chuwit for providing information to the government about the businesses run by Chinese triads in Thailand.

In January, he said he had video evidence of police officers extorting a Taiwanese actress, which resulted in four policemen being sentenced to five years in prison. In February, his revelations got six senior cops fired for their involvement in online gambling.

Despite these successes, Mr. Chuwit is pessimistic that his efforts are making a dent in Thailand’s corruption. “What I do for this country, for the people, is useless,” he said. “To change this country, you need more than one.”

His detractors roll their eyes at these pronouncements. They see him as an attention-seeker, in it for his own political and financial self-interest.

“There’s a concern about whether he’s doing it for personal aspirations,” said Cod Satrusayang, the editor in chief of Thai Enquirer, a news website. “I’d like to believe it’s altruistic, but given his past, there are not that many Thais that are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.”

The Davis Hotel in central Bangkok, owned by Mr. Chuwit. Although he strongly opposed the legalization of marijuana, it was decriminalized in Thailand last year and is now sold widely, including across the street from his property. Credit...Lauren DeCicca for The New York Times

Mr. Chuwit grew up in Bangkok’s Chinatown, the 13th of 15 children born to a Thai-Chinese businessman who owned a department store.

About 40 years ago, he enrolled in Campbell University in North Carolina to study business, but ended up dropping out and working odd jobs. At 21, he met a 19-year-old American woman, married her and had two children.

When his father asked him to return to Thailand, he did, alone, and he stayed for the next 15 years.

“I told her I was coming back after three months, then I went to see her after 15 years,” he said of his American wife. “She was so angry.”

Mr. Chuwit says he is now paying a price for his past conduct.

“Even my second wife, she never wants to talk to me,” he said. “I’m going to be the old guy who dies alone. I think I deserve that.”

After his cancer diagnosis, Mr. Chuwit didn’t immediately end his corruption fight.

In August, he accused Srettha Thavisin, a real estate mogul and at the time the front-runner for the prime minister’s job, of colluding to commit tax fraud during a land sale.

Mr. Srettha sued Mr. Chuwit for defamation and accused him of blackmail, a charge Mr. Chuwit denies. That same month, Mr. Srettha was chosen as prime minister. Mr. Chuwit has countersued Mr. Srettha for defamation; the next hearing is in January.

Mr. Chuwit said he still has much dirt to expose, “but there’s no time.”

A Chuwit action figure made by one of his fans.Credit...Lauren DeCicca for The New York Times

And he advises against anyone taking up his whistle-blowing legacy.

“I’ve realized this is a big mistake,” he said. People, he added, should choose an easier path. “That will be a smart way — this is the stubborn way.”

Ryn Jirenuwat and Muktita Suhartono contributed reporting.