The memorandum of understanding signed on May 22 by the eight parties hoping to form a governing coalition sets forth an ambitious reform agenda, including "push for reform of the bureaucracy, police, armed forces and justice system" and to "promote a culture of transparency to tackle corruption".
They have their work cut out for them.
“The core of society is corrupt,” former politician Chuvit Kamolvisit says on the new Bangkok Post podcast, “Deeper Dive”.
“I believe every country has corruption when they start. But I never see any country that as time passes by, the corruption is more, is more, is more, like Thailand.”
If anyone knows about corruption, it’s Mr Chuvit. As the owner of a string of soapy massage parlours in the 1990s and early 2000s — the ab ob nuat (massage parlour) complexes that are actually fronts for prostitution, which is against the law — he claims to have paid the police monthly bribes to the tune of 3 million baht to stay open.
After selling the seedy side of his business empire, Mr Chuvit began a career in politics as an anti-corruption campaigner, twice serving as a member of parliament. Although his days as a politician have passed, he’s been back in the headlines since late 2022 with allegations of high-profile graft.
In February, he identified “Inspector Sua” as the former senior police officer behind a network of online gambling sites. Pol Lt Col Wasawat Mukurasakul and 18 associates have fled abroad, while 57 people have been arrested over their alleged links to the 10-billion-baht-a-year operation.
“There is 5,000 websites about the gambling in Thai,” Mr Chuvit said on “Deeper Dive”.
“They [make] them pay 50,000 per website per month. So you can calculate how much they get.
“Smaller size — 5,000 websites. Middle size — pay 100,000 per month. I divide into size S, M and L. Each size, you pay more.”
The month before, Mr Chuvit publicised the case of Charlene An, the Taiwanese actress in a group that was stopped at a Bangkok police checkpoint on Jan 4 and allegedly only released after they paid 27,000 baht.
“When Charlene comes with the Singaporean, takes the Grab past the checkpoint, the police know this is a tourist, so they stop and check and found the electric cigarette, which is illegal in Thailand. This is a gap for corruption, [because] you can buy the electric cigarette everywhere, in the market, on the street, online.”
Ignorance of the law, Mr Chuvit pointed out, is no defence — and enforcement can be lucrative.
“You’re not a local, you’re a tourist, you don’t know the rule, you need to go to jail. This is the way the Thai police do [it].
“The checkpoint is always on the main road, near the entertainment area, for example on Sukhumvit, on Ratchada, on Thong Lor, on Ekkamai. The small police officer needs to find money to send to the higher police, because they set the target every time you set up the checkpoint.
“They see you, they stop you, they know you are farang, you’re not a local. Let’s say…you’re drunk. What you gonna do? You gonna go to jail? Or you just pay me 20,000, 30,000.”
Mr Chuvit emphasised that not all officers are corrupt, saying almost all of his information comes from whistleblowers inside the Royal Thai Police. “You are surprised or not? There is still good police… They send me the video, they send me all the secret information.”
‘Buying the law’
The case that brought Mr Chuvit back into the headlines was the Oct 26, 2022 police raid on an unlicensed club in Yannawa district. He wrote on Facebook that a group of Chinese nationals found on the drug-strewn premises paid 5.5 million baht to avoid arrest, while another 11 who escaped the raid were asked for a further 4 million baht by police, Department of Special Investigations personnel and a soldier.
Mr Chuvit said the amounts were so large because police knew they had caught some big fish.
“If you file the red notice, you can check from Interpol, it’s a jackpot. Now you have to pay me! They know that Chinese always carry cash, they have a society so tight. So they can make a call and ask for more cash.”
Many of the Chinese, Mr Chuvit discovered, were on visas issued fraudulently in the Northeast.
“Why you have to go to Isan? Immigration Section 4 — northeastern Thailand area. So I can check…7,000 Chinese apply for volunteer, education [visas] in Section 4 in the year 2020, 2019 only. Different from another section. So I know: this is strange.
“Criminal of China, where they want to go? Cannot go to Singapore, cannot go to Australia. They go to Thailand. Why Thailand? Because Thailand easy…they can buy the police. They can buy the law.
“They can do anything.”
In an interview with the Bangkok Post published on 17 Feb 2023, Pol Gen Surachate Hakparn, deputy national police chief, confirmed many of Mr Chuvit’s allegations, including that corrupt immigration officials appeared to be issuing education and volunteer visas to Chinese gangsters in the northeast.
“The IB [Immigration Bureau] is bound by duty to prevent those criminals from slipping through immigration controls,” he said. “But as it happens, some immigration officers are suspected of facilitating their entry into the country.”
“When I served as the IB chief, thousands of overstayers, many of whom were criminals, were arrested and deported. Right now, they are returning and trying to secure student or volunteer visas for a longer stay of up to one year with the help of corrupt immigration officers.”
In this and several other cases, it appeared that Mr Chuvit was doing the police’s work for them — begging the question whether these cases would ever have been investigated had he not brought them to light. Whether the cases eventually lead to convictions or any meaningful change, however, is doubtful given past history.
After the scandal erupted, Pol Lt Gen Pakpoompipat Sajjapan, head of the Immigration Bureau, promised “a working group to revise rules on visa extension applications that cite work for foundations, the need to receive medical treatment, and for studying in both the formal and informal educational systems”.
A common perception, however, is that the problem is not the rules: it’s that criminals are bribing officials to flout the rules.
Foreigners living legally in Thailand bring billions of baht into the economy. After corruption scandals emerge, it appears that authorities’ kneejerk response is to tighten bureaucratic red tape for these legitimate foreigners — ironically creating new corruption opportunities — while foreign criminals continue finding ways to bribe their way in.
In this way, authorities can make it look like they’re tackling the problem, such as by tightening restrictions on visa applicants, instead of dealing with the true cause — corruption and crime in their own ranks.
Culture of dishonesty
For Mr Chuvit, the underlying cause of Thailand’s corruption is a culture of dishonesty.
“The core of the society is corrupt… They always say that it’s a Buddhist country. But it’s wrong. They don’t accept the truth. There is prostitution in the middle of Bangkok, in the massage parlour, everybody knows. But the law forbids it.”
Some corruption can be addressed, Mr Chuvit suggests, by legalising and taxing grey businesses such as gambling and prostitution, using some of the proceeds to top up the salaries of underpaid junior police to make corruption less tempting.
“If everything like gambling on the table, you can take the corruption out and you can bring the money from the tax, which I call sin tax, to generate benefit for all the police, all the justice [system].”
In his next breath, however, the maverick campaigner says it will never happen, because the people in charge are the ones that benefit most from corruption.
“They’re not gonna do that. Believe me. Why? Because they don’t want to eat on the table. They want to eat under the table. You can eat more — greedy! If you eat on the table, you have to eat formally. But if you eat under the table, you can eat anything! You can eat a lot!
“You see, this is the Thai way. They don’t do it in front of you, they do it behind you. That’s why you see more corruption in Thailand …They like to lie.
“If they accept the truth, this country [would go] forward. And grow. A lot.”
The transformation of the self-described “superpimp” into a heroic whistleblower invites scepticism in many quarters.
Aside from his past involvement in grey businesses and mafia-like activities such as the overnight demolition in early 2003 of bars and shops from Sukhumvit Square — which he had recently purchased, and for which he served time in prison — Mr Chuvit has himself been accused of corruption.
Others chafe at his self-portrayal as a victim and a martyr, such as when he told me: “I sacrifice myself to let Thai society know what happened”.
Yet arguably no-one else has done more to expose corruption in Thai institutions in recent years.
And whether or not his claim that his 2003 revelations of bribery led to his abduction for two days is true, the May 11 death in police custody of a sidekick to Inspector Sua — who would have been able to identify many of those involved in the online gambling ring — is a reminder that knowing too much can be dangerous.
Most of all, perhaps, his message that the best way to fight corruption is to speak up, loud and clear, is quite persuasive — even if the consequences could be dire and the odds of victory seem oppressively long.
“You need to talk, you need to speak up. You need to [make them] aware, at least [then] they are afraid to be corrupt.
“You may say that I not win. I say that I not win. I am just sparking the light. And with one candle, maybe I not win today. Maybe I win next year. Maybe I never win. But at least I talk, at least someone try to do.”
Scan the QR code below or click here to watchDave Kendall’s full interview with Chuvit Kamolvisit on the second episode of the new Bangkok Post podcast, ‘Deeper Dive’. Or search for ‘Deeper Dive Thailand’ wherever you get your podcasts.