BANGKOK (AP) — As the super-pimp who once ran Thailand's biggest brothel empire and then exposed the police kickbacks he had to pay for it to flourish, Chuvit Kamolvisit feels uniquely qualified to lead the country's fight against corruption.
And in his quest to win a parliament seat in elections Sunday, the 49-year-old one-time massage parlor king is betting a public tired of divisive, hypocritical leaders will agree.
Politicians "are like diapers — you have to change them," Chuvit told The Associated Press in an interview, referring to a campaign poster that features him cradling a toddler. "Otherwise it's too dirty."
Chuvit's bid to become a lawmaker is no joke. He first won a national assembly seat back in 2005, only to be disqualified the following year because he had not been a member of his party long enough before the poll.
He's also run for Bangkok governor twice, coming in a distant third both times. His last campaign nose-dived after he punched a newscaster in the face for asking questions he didn't like — then kicked him when he fell to the ground.
"When I got into politics, I didn't know that it's too dirty for me — even me," Chuvit said ruefully.
"Maybe I'm stupid for jumping into it," he added. "I pray someday I can stop. It's like you are gambling ... you know you're gonna lose all the money but you keep" playing anyway.
If elected, Chuvit has vowed not to join any ruling coalition. Instead, he would stand alone as an independent outsider regardless of the outcome — a one-man, anti-corruption reality check on government.
With the air and swagger of a mafia don, the stocky, mustachioed Chuvit plays the part of former sex boss well. Since selling off his brothels, he has become a kind of pimp-turned-Robin Hood — exploiting his own sordid past to legitimize his crusade against graft.
It all began in 2003, when he was accused of the unauthorized, overnight demolition of scores of unlicensed bars and shops from a downtown Bangkok block he owned. The brutal move erupted into a major public scandal, and when the police failed to protect him, Chuvit fought back by exposing the behemoth bribes he had to pay to keep his mighty empire of flesh running.
Confirming that open secret turned him into an unlikely folk hero among Bangkok residents, eclipsing the demolition itself and underscoring public revulsion against official corruption. The Nation newspaper declared him "Person of the Year."
Eight years on, he said, corruption is still "eating this country and nobody cares." He admits there's not much he can do about it, but whoever listens will "hear the truth ... the street truth."
Prostitution is illegal in Thailand but rarely prosecuted. Chuvit's massage parlors were thinly disguised brothels, and he doesn't see anything wrong with them — except the payoffs police demanded ($300,000 a month, he claims, not to mention the Rolex watches and free services thrown in on top).
Chalidaporn Songsamphan, who teaches political science at Thammasat University, said Chuvit "might appear to be a clown, but he's very serious about politics."
"He's been able to touch the hearts of people in Bangkok because he's straightforward," she said. "He speaks the language of many in the middle class who are not happy with the Thai leadership, and they view him as a real alternative."
Chuvit's campaign trail has taken him all over the country, and last week it led to electoral ground in the capital no other candidate has dared touch: one of the city's sleaziest red-light districts.
"I'm not asking for much," Chuvit called out as he wandered through neon-lit alleyways of Patpong, where go-go girls waved excitedly from heaving barroom doorways. "If you are a family of 10, just give me five votes!"
Patpong, he said, is symbolic of the nation's hypocrisy: A part of society "which everybody outside Thailand knows — but no one (here) accepts."
"No one accepts even that they have sex in Thailand, that they have a sex business," he said, shaking his head. "The Thai people always, you know, they always smile as you can see, but they never talk the truth."
That's why one campaign poster shows a smiling, tie-sporting Chuvit proudly shaking the paw of his four-year-old white bull terrier, Moto Moto. Honesty, trustworthiness — "Why they have that in the dog," he asked, "and you don't have that in the politics?"
Chuvit clearly relishes the role of maverick. He may be the only candidate to have tweeted a photo of himself "planking" — the Internet craze in which people lie face down in a public place and upload it online.
His Rak Thailand ("Love Thailand") party has erected hundreds of placards in English so the rest of the world "can know what is happening" here. The signs say simply: "Against Corruption."
Chuvit spent several years in the U.S while in his 20s, attending a string of colleges but graduating from none. Still, he garnered an appreciation of American-style capitalism, and a penchant for outspokenness.
After returning home, he made a fortune during a late 1980s real estate boom. When a client took him to an upscale massage parlor, he had an epiphany. "I said 'Oh wow, it's good!' It's like a Hugh Hefner: You know, surrounded by the beautiful girls, making money."
In his heyday, Chuvit commanded half a dozen jacuzzi-filled pleasure palaces — Victoria's Secret, Honolulu Love Boat, Copa Cobana — employing more than 1,000 women who lined up behind huge glass "fishbowls" with numbers pinned on skimpy dresses for customers to choose.
He sold his slice of the sex business years ago, and says he's done with it for good. But when people ask about his former life, "I say yes ... I should go back to the massage parlors," he sighed. "Because that was better — cleaner than politics."
In politics you have to "look smart, talk smart, but it's not good," Chuvit said. "This is real life, and the people in real life look like me."