'Game over' in Bangkok?

Thailand's government is cracking down on youth fads, shedding the capital's 24/7 party image.

Outside the Hard Rock Cafe, that 1980s song is still on heavy rotation. "One night in Bangkok and the world's your oyster," it promises. Inside there are plenty of believers, jostling for elbowroom on the dance floor.

But Bangkok's enduring image as an exotic 24/7 fun palace, where smiling cops turn a blind eye to hedonist excess, needs an update, or perhaps some new words for the song. If you want to smoke at a restaurant, dance until dawn, or play the country's No. 1 Internet game, Bangkok is no longer your oyster.

Last year's crackdown on underage party revelers gave rise to a nationwide war on drug pushers - blamed for a spike in methamphetamine use - that left more than 2,000 dead during a three-month period earlier this year. This summer the emphasis has been on a somewhat haphazard campaign against social ills. The focus now, as it was then, is mostly on Thailand's youth.

The established pattern is for concerned parents and conservative politicians to denounce a fad taken up by teenagers as possibly dangerous. A government ban is usually not far behind.

First to get the chop was smoking in public places, a ban that passed into law with barely a whimper from millions of Thai smokers.

Then it was the turn of Ragnarok, an Internet role-playing game that has more than 600,000 registered players in Thailand. Parents complained that their children were hooked on the game; others looked askance at players spending far too much of their money on it. The government's response was a nighttime curfew. Since July 15, computer servers that keep Ragnarok running have been ordered to shut down between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.

Experts explained the game's appeal: "Some parents just do not have time for their kids, and that is why the kids go online," Sisak Jamonaran, president of Thailand's Computer Society, told the BBC. "What the kids really need is love from their parents."

No sooner had Ragnarok rage died down than another youth fashion arrived: hookah pipes. A regular fixture of sidewalk cafes in Bangkok's Arab quarter, the tobacco water pipes started bubbling up in hip nightspots. Health officials promptly banned the pipes.

Even those opting to just stay home and watch the tube are seeing their options curbed. Censors are fuming over excess kissing on TV. The deputy prime minister has threatened to suspend networks that show "obscenity."

The government already forces networks, including foreign cable channels, to blur scenes that show people smoking or using guns. The trend toward censorship is starting to sting advertisers: A ban on daytime spots for beer and liquor was recently announced, starting Oct. 1.

In a society where the collective good is more valued than individual rights, these bans aren't seen as particularly draconian. Yet amid all the moral outrage, the regulators have yet to get a grip on Bangkok's notorious sex industry.

In one of the city's most colorful dramas, massage-parlor tycoon Chuwit Kamolvisit has taken center stage with lurid insider tales of police corruption. To hear Mr. Chuwit tell it, cops shouldn't be casting the first stone.

As the owner of Bangkok's premier massage parlors - a polite word for brothels - Chuwit said he has showered police officers with millions of dollars: "I was willing to pay and they gladly obliged."

It all went sour earlier this year when police accused Chuwit of ordering the demolition of a rival nightclub and exploiting underage girls in his pleasure palaces. The story got murkier after Chuwit claimed that police had kidnapped him to keep a lid on his tales.

To most observers, the spectacle of Chuwit's rambling accusations and ritual police denials of graft is pure entertainment, if not necessarily news. Bangkok's neon netherworld has long written its own rules, generating fat profits for all and giving first-time tourists plenty to write home about. Perhaps that's why crusading politicians usually steer clear, instead focusing their wrath on hookah smokers and fantasy gamers.

After all, they are less likely to bite the hand that feeds. As Chuwit delights in telling reporters, "I'm like a mad dog and I'll bite anyone."

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