Thai ex-police chief questioned over $9.5 mn loan from brothel owner

by Thanaporn PROMYAMYAI, Sally MAIRS

Bangkok (AFP) - A former Thai police chief was questioned Thursday over loans topping $9.5 million from a fugitive brothel owner who faces sex trafficking charges, a case offering a rare window into the close links between cops and the kingdom's rampant sex industry.

Somyot Poompanmoung, who now runs Thailand's Football Association, has admitted to receiving the massive loans from the owner of the "Victoria Secret" mega-brothel in the capital.

Police raided the brothel last month, rounding up around 100 sex workers -- including at least 13 deemed victims of trafficking, most of whom were underage girls from neighbouring Myanmar.

A ledger found at the scene listed some 20 officials who allegedly received free food, booze and even massages from the illegal business.

The venue is one of scores of flashy "massage parlours" in Bangkok that offer sex services in dozens of private rooms equipped with baths.

While prostitution is technically outlawed in Thailand, the lucrative industry is allowed to flourish in plain sight thanks to an entrenched culture of bribes and protection fees.

Raids are rare and normally only conducted when police believe that underage girls are involved.

On Thursday, the straight-talking Somyot arrived at the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) for questioning over his ties to Kampol Wirathepsuporn, the alleged owner of Victoria Secret and several other massive massage parlours.

"I came here as a witness to provide information. I cannot talk about details," Somyot told reporters after the interrogation.

Supat Thamthanarug, director of the DSI's trafficking bureau, confirmed that no charges had been pressed against the former cop.

While police have detained seven pimps and brokers linked to Victoria Secret on trafficking charges, Kampol and his wife remain at large.

- 'Borrowing is borrowing' -

Authorities say they are still investigating which officials were listed as patrons of the brothel on the ledger seized during the raid.

Speaking to reporters last week, Somyot described Kampol as an old friend who helped him with cash in times of need.

He said the transactions were handled lawfully and reported to a government graft agency in 2015, the year he was Thailand's national police commissioner.

"Borrowing is borrowing, helping is helping and afterwards the money was returned," he said last week, brushing off accusations of wrongdoing and explaining that he did not ask his friend how the money was made.

Yet the close ties between a top law enforcer and a major brothel owner have grabbed the attention of a kingdom rocked by a succession of scandals, highlighting graft that insulates the kingdom's wealthy and well-connected.

The junta's number two general is in the crosshairs for failing to declare a collection of some 25 luxury watches, while a construction tycoon was recently nabbed for hunting wildlife in a protected park.

Both cases have ignited an equal measure of public frustration and ridicule aimed at the military junta that seized power in 2014, vowing to clean up corruption and a culture of impunity for the elite.

"The regime is increasingly losing face and being perceived as the corrupt government that it claimed it was ousting back in 2014," said Thailand-based analyst Paul Chambers.

"It is not surprising that there is police corruption but what is interesting is it comes on the heels of these other scandals."