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Thai sex tycoon rubs cops the wrong way
By Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK - "The reason I like 'Emmanuelle' is because all-around service is the best," a man writing as "ABC" says about a place here in the Thai capital that fronts as a massage parlor but caters to the sexual fantasies of men.

"For 3,000 baht [US$70] you get this VIP room which is nice, not to mention the females are very good looking and provide an awesome service," the writer wrote on the webpage "Bangkok Tonight", which caters to those drawn to Thailand's abundant commercial sex scene.

Venues such as Emmanuelle are sturdy structures along Ratchadaphisek Road in central Bangkok, a well-known strip of night entertainment in this mega-city of 6 million people.

Some buildings have six or eight floors, with flamboyant colored walls, and have names like Poseidon, Hi-Class and Copa Cabana. At night, they glow with bright neon lights to attract male clients, both Thai and foreign.

The scene that unfolds within most of them is a common one: fair-skinned Thai women in figure-hugging dresses, seated row upon row behind a glass wall. They wait for customers to select them for a "massage", which often includes a bubble bath as a prelude to sex.

Since early July, such palaces of pleasure have been in the glare of the local media because of the man known here as the "king of commercial sex", Chuwit Kamolvisit. He has revealed how he kept six of the "massage parlors" he owns, including Emmanuelle, open - by bribing the police.

These accounts, which have been grabbing the headlines, have grown more surreal with every passing day, given the scale of money, gifts and services that Chuwit is alleged to have paid to both senior and junior police officers to keep his businesses running.

"I used to buy whole trays of Rolex watches for police officers. I used to carry cash in black plastic bags for them," Chuwit revealed in his first salvo fired at the police. This was followed by the charge that he pays the police bribes worth 12 million baht ($287,000) a month for the six massage parlors he runs.

On Sunday, he told the Thai media in one of what have become almost daily press conferences, that no less than police officers belonging to the Crime Suppression Division had been customers at his massage parlors.

"Chuwit suggested that the officers used his massage-parlor services without paying, with some bills amounting to more than 20,000 baht" (about $480), states the English-language daily The Nation in its Monday edition.

The police have been vehemently denying the charges. Tuesday's Bangkok Post newspaper reports that an internal investigation by the city's deputy police chief revealed that Chuwit's allegations of bribes paid to four police stations "had no grounds".

But the roller-coaster pace at which the Chuwit saga is unfolding - including dramatic moments such as him being abducted one day, the police accusing him of "faking" the incident and arresting him, then freeing him on bail - has offered a snapshot about how Thais view such scandals.

For instance, the fact that Chuwit has actually been breaking the law by running a prostitution trade on a grand scale has not provoked outrage. There also has not been criticism about how he exploited loopholes in the Thai law to build his empire.

Yet Thailand's 1999 Prevention and Suppression of Prostitution Act states that anyone who owns, supervises or manages a "prostitution business, or is the controller of prostitutes in a prostitution establishment, shall be liable to imprisonment of a term [of] three to 15 years and to a fine of 60,000 to 300,000 baht".

In some quarters, Chuwit is even being hailed as a hero for launching a high-profile expose of police corruption. This is despite the fact that he faces charges of having underage girls in his massage parlors and having been involved in the demolition of a strip of bars (see Brazen destruction threatens Thai image, January 30).

But the police are also not being cheered either in this case, where a suspect in a series of crimes is getting back at law enforcers through the media.

This is due to the universally held views in this Southeast Asian country about the extent of police corruption, states Chang Noi, a commentator on Thai social and political affairs.

"Three years ago, the Civil Service Commission published a national survey which showed that people perceived the police to be the most corrupt agency," Chang Noi wrote in a column in The Nation on Monday.

"Just a few months ago, the police were making raids on illegal casinos," Chang adds. "At one location they were met by one of their own colleagues waving a pistol. He shouted something like: 'Aren't you guys ever satisfied? I've paid you too much already!' Then he threatened to shoot them." A Thai lawyer who spoke on condition of anonymity is unapologetic about the freedom Chuwit and others involved in the commercial sex trade have enjoyed. After all, he said, "at the heart of the matter is lax enforcement and corruption".

Legal loopholes have also helped create an environment where the commercial sex trade thrives. "It is legal to have massage parlors, and that has been used for prostitution," said Usa Lerdsrisuntad, coordinator at the Foundation for Women, a Bangkok-based non-governmental organization.

She added that during police raids, it is often the pimp instead of the owner of the establishment who is hauled up before the police. "The owner can claim to be ignorant of what was actually going on in the massage parlors," she explained in an interview.

According to The Nation, Chuwit has more than 1,000 masseuses working in his six parlors.

Currently, 157 massage parlors are registered with the Excise Department, of which 103 licensed ones are in Bangkok. The "massage parlors" along Ratchadaphisek Road charge customers between 2,000 and 5,000 baht for a 90-minute period, while others charge 1,600 baht for a similar period.

For now, despite Chuwit's showdown with the police, the men who frequent these establishments have little to worry about: the doors to the palaces of pleasure owned by this country's "king of commercial sex" remain open.

Business is thriving, as shown by the steady stream of cars to the "massage parlors" and the taxis lined outside, waiting to drive satisfied customers away.

(Inter Press Service)
Jul 23, 2003

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