“In the morning, when I wake up, I drink a coffee and I read the paper. What is today’s bullshit, today’s lie? I never believe anything that’s written in the papers, they’re like cartoons. They’re entertainment. They don’t tell the truth.”
Chuwit’s been a lot of things to the Thai people – real estate tycoon, evil landlord, massage parlour proprietor, misogynist and feminist, social equality advocate, TV celebrity and maverick politician. Mostly though, he is known for breaking the conventions of Thailand’s political discourse as often as he thinks he can get away with it.
Born 50 years ago in Chinatown, Chuwit grew up in Bangkok before pursuing an MBA at San Diego University. There he married, had two children and stayed on a while in San Diego, but in the early 90s he was back in Thailand. Back to make money.
“I wanted to make big bucks. One day, I learned that massage parlours make a lot of money. But one thing you need in Thailand is a licence. A massage licence, which will tell you how many rooms you can operate. The first licence I bought was for 106 rooms. That was Victoria’s Secrets. I started paying the police from the first month I operated.”
Chuwit, the newcomer to Bangkok’s infamous sex industry, soon ran a string of massage parlours and allegedly made tens of millions of dollars. But his cosy relationship with the authorities was not to last. In early 2003, unidentified men sealed off a shopping plaza on Sukhumvit Road, Bangkok’s busiest road and, with intimidation and bulldozers, destroyed 500 businesses overnight. The landlord? Chuwit. To this day, Chuwit denies that he was behind the demolition and blames a subcontractor. At the time, he also claimed that he had paid off police to operate on the land. A tit-for-tat blame game ensued – Chuwit named allegedly corrupt police officers and was thrown in jail, released, kidnapped and released again. The local and international media loved the tug of war and Chuwit, a suave-looking man with an ironic twinkle in his eye, became an overnight celebrity – a status he obviously enjoyed.
In conservative Thailand, where tens of thousands of women work in the sex trade while prostitution continues to be illegal, Chuwit was the odd man out. Hated by his colleagues and the police and never reluctant to point out the Kingdom’s double standards, by 2003, the massage parlour man also had earned the ire of then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
“The PM knows I pay money to the police, because he paid when he did business. He knows that very well,” he said at the time.
It was a typical comment. Chuwit had angered so many people in the establishment that he needed protection. He decided to make politics his full time occupation. He was named Person of the Year by The Nation newspaper, sold some of his establishments and, in 2004, the illustrious rebel ran for Bangkok governor garnering more than 16% of the votes. The campaign posters showed an irate Chuwit swinging a sledgehammer – and promising war on corruption.
The following year, he became a member of parliament with the Chart Thai Party, but he soon fell out with party leader Banharn Silpa-archa.
“Political parties don’t want to accept me because I say what I think is true. You know, Banharn, he never uses a pen. Always a pencil, so he can erase everything. Thai politicians like the pencil.”
In 2006, Chuwit was disqualified from parliament, because he had changed parties quicker than the law permitted. But he was also acquitted of the charge of demolishing the Sukhumvit Road shopping plaza and converted the area into a public park, named Chuwit Garden.
In 2008, he ran for governor in Bangkok again, and came third, as he had done in 2004.
But the old political divisions in Thailand were shifting. Thaksin Shinawatra’s increasingly autocratic rule, from 2001 until the military coup in 2006, polarised Thai politics. The rural poor whom he claimed to represent evolved into the Red Shirts and faced off the moneyed old guard – the Democrat Party, apparently backed by sections of the business elite, the military and the Privy Council.
Thaksin’s rule proved so divisive and riddled with such gross abuses of power that it also gave rise to a vocal conservative extra-parliamentary opposition – known as the Yellow Shirts – a right-wing vigilante movement like the Red Shirts, which seized control of Bangkok’s newly built Suvarnabhumi Airport in 2008.
“Thaksin offered something new to Thai politics – populism. While Prime Minister Abhisit is good-looking, has a good background and high education, he does not connect with 80% of people in this country – the 80% that suffer. And these people will try anything new, so Thaksin was fresh and different. The problem is voters only ever listen to rich people and Thaksin exploited that. For him it’s just a game, he doesn’t care about people. And now he has broken the country in two.”
Chuwit is equally critical of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s ruling coalition that suppressed the Red Shirts’ demonstrations with overwhelming military force in May.
“Abhisit looks soft and young, but inside he is hard. The Privy Council and the military help him maintain power, so he has to be slippery, but in the end he makes his own decisions. Abhisit chose to bring the army into the city in May. He doesn’t care about 90 people dead.”
This zero-sum game, the absolute polarisation of Thailand’s political divide is what upsets Chuwit most.
“You know, if you let the girl in the whore house, she will become a whore. In the beginning when I saw Thaksin, I had hope. Maybe this is some new hero coming. But what happened? Thaksin got more rich. And what about Abhisit? How do you square up his high education with almost 100 people dead? How do you do that? Politics must be a compromise, but we never make any compromise.”
While Chuwit likes to blame just about every Thai politician for the country’s failings, he finds the deeper reasons for what he considers the country’s political corruption and current divide at the core of Thai society.
“In the US, I used to take my kids to school and the teacher used to say to his pupils, ‘Does anyone want to ask any questions?’ And all the children raised their hands. In Thailand nobody asks any questions. Our society teaches us to stay quiet. So how can the government say it wants harmony, when it throws people who speak out in jail? We are back to where we were 30 or 40 years ago, we cannot speak, we have to sit tight and say nothing.”
After more than half a decade on the political front line, Chuwit has become an excellent self-promoter and a smart political operator. But he is not in the club. He is not privy to the backroom politics of the Kingdom and this gives him a unique public platform of political neutrality he shares with few others and exploits readily. For this very same reason, he is also robbed of any real political muscle, a sorry fact he articulates brilliantly.
“In politics, everyone lies and everyone knows, yet everyone claims to speak the truth. The massage parlour business was more honest.”
“WE NEED A NEW POLITICAL MOVEMENT”
During the recent unrest in Bangkok, Chuwit Kamolvisit was spotted on the front lines between troops and Red Shirts. Now, he plans to enter the political ring again to help bring a solution to the ongoing conflict.
Why did you move around the Live Fire Zones during the troubles in May, risking your life?
You have to pay something for the truth. A journalist can’t write a story just by sitting at home, he has to go out and see something. And I have to pay something to get to the truth. I am not scared of anything and I will run in the next election.
What do you make of the recent unrest?
I went to Doi Suthep, in Chiang Mai the other day and bought some fruit at a stall. The vendor asked me for money for her people to go to Bangkok to protest against the government. I asked her how she could feed her family if she went to Bangkok to protest and she said, ‘We may not eat, but we have to fight for democracy.’ It will be very difficult for Thailand to come together again. I can imagine this conflict lasting 20 years. The social problems are beyond Thaksin Shinawatra. The fire is already set. It makes no difference anymore whether he is there or not.
Do you have any advice for Mr Thaksin and Mr Abhisit?
I think Thaksin should come back and he should serve time. Then, after a couple of months, he can get a pardon and then he can go back to dominating politics again. Anything could happen. Thai politics is very unpredictable that way. But it makes no difference whether Thaksin or Abhisit is in charge, they both close down the media and influence the country to maintain power and monopolise everything.
Why do you remain in politics when you think it is such a dirty game in Thailand?
I don’t want to be in government, and I don’t want to take sides, even though it would make my life a lot easier. What’s wrong with this country? We need politicians who speak for more than just themselves. When I go abroad and tell people that I am a Thai politician, they look at me as if I were a cockroach. I would like to run as an independent candidate. But according to our constitution, I have to have a party. So I am starting Rak Pathet Thai (“Love Thailand Party”, the name perilously close to Thaksin’s former Thai Rak Thai, or “Thai’s love Thais”, party). And I will tell my voters, don’t believe the politicians. Don’t believe Thaksin or Abhisit. Don’t even believe me. We need a new political movement, better than me and better than the hundreds in parliament who don’t tell the truth.